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B'nai Mitzvah divrei Torah

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Parshat Miketz by Sydney Robbins-DowlingDecember 12, 2015

Shabbat Shalom!                  
 
Although my portion today, Miketz, is about Joseph tricking his brothers, today is also Hanukkah, and that takes a special mention and highlight in our service by my reading a special haftarah for the Shabbat of Hanukkah.
 
So I would like to discuss Miracles, and, more importantly, what is a Miracle?
 
I know the Wikipedia definition of Miracles.
I quote: A miracle is an event not explicable by natural or scientific laws. Such an event may be attributed to a supernatural being (G-d or gods), amiracle worker, a saint or a religious leader.
 
This, I believe, barely scratches the surface, and I would like to delve a little deeper.
 
Miracles always seem to appear just when we need them, and always in response to someone doing something for G-D.
 
The commentator Rambam, Maimonides, first believed that Miracles were actually put into nature, during the days of creation, and that miracles are part of nature.
 
He said, “G-d already expressed His will in the course of the six days of creation, and things act in accordance with their nature from then on…”
 
If Rambam is correct, then maybe there are no miracles, and everything is, and was, part of G-D’s plan.
 
But later in life, Rambam had a different view: he believed that miracles were deviations from nature, not planned during the six days, but rather times when God chose to intervene, and went against nature in doing so.
 
Rambam’s son, R. Avraham ben Ha-Rambam stated that there are three different types of people:
1. Prophets and others who have been promised directly by G-D, and not only rely, but believe in “His miraculous intervention.”
2. Deniers and/or unbelievers who trust “only in intermediary causes.”
3. “The religious person who knows that the world runs according to nature but G-D can intervene at any time if He chooses”.
  
I disagree with R. Avraham ben Ha-Rambam. I believe that a person can be in more than one of those categories, can both be someone with a promise, and someone who believes in the truth of the moment.
 
I think that you can never completely be in any one of those categories. You can also be in a completely different category. You can be someone who does not believe in G-D, but still trusts in something other than intermediary causes.
 
And is it fair to call someone an “unbeliever” because they don’t believe in the same miracle process as you? Is there anyone here in only one of these categories? Can’t a person both rely on “G-D’s miraculous intervention” and also think that the world runs according to nature?
 
Deuteronomy chapter 13 verses 2-4 says that "If a prophet arise among you who gives a sign or wonder, and the sign or wonder comes to pass, but he desires to lead you into idolatry, you shalt not hearken to that prophet, for the Lord your G-d tests you, whether you truly love the Lord your G-d.”
 
This tells us not to believe in false prophets. I think a false prophet would be someone who led you away from G-D’s truth, meaning the message they deliver goes against what you personally believe or what you know to be true. You should also not believe in false miracles.
 
The popular camp song Ruach comes from a phrase from my haftarah, (sing it!) “Not by might, not by power, but by spirit alone.”
 
The spirit, or ruach, in question is G-D’s. What I take away from this is that while there are miracles, there are no human miracle workers, and though prophets speak of miracles G-D will bring, these things only happen through Him and not through mortals.
 
As Jews we don’t believe in saints or any one person doing miracles; in fact, the Passover story makes it very clear that our liberation from slavery was not done through an angel or through an intermediary, but only by G-d alone. The haggadah for Passover doesn’t even mention Moses, in case we want to make him into the source of the miracle of freedom.
 
So it doesn’t matter with which of Rambam’s opinions you agree, according to Jewish thought, miracles are still evidence of G-D’s power
But is a miracle just something that shows off G-D’s power? Does a miracle have to be as big as splitting the Red Sea?
 
One modern day opinion on miracles is brought to us by a popular cultural figure, Doctor Who.
 
“The universe is big. It’s vast and complicated and ridiculous. And sometimes, very rarely, impossible things just happen and we call them miracles.” --The Doctor, Season 5, Episode 12.
 
This is actually a point in which I believe strongly: when we have no idea how to explain something, when science fails us, we call it a miracle.
 
“Even miracles take a little time,” said Cinderella. The famous girl with the shoe and the fairy godmother has a point. If you are demanding of a miracle at that very second, you probably don’t deserve the miracle you want.
 
I think that is important. For God to give you a miracle, for you to notice a miracle, you have to deserve it. You have to work for a miracle.
 
If you don’t help yourself, how can G-D help you? Otherwise, why would you get the miracle? If you live in a big fancy house, and are complaining about work, you want a miracle, do you really deserve it? Even if you have a small house, at least it’s a house. Many people cannot even imagine having a house.
 
There is an old joke about waiting for miracles. There is a couple living together in a house, and a flood warning goes off. A police car drives through the town, warning everyone to clear out. “We will wait,” says the couple. “G-d will save us.”
 
The water level rises, and the couple goes upstairs, to avoid drowning. Their neighbor comes by with a boat, telling them to get in and escape the flood. “We will wait,” says the couple again. “G-d will save us.”
 
The water rises again, and the couple goes up onto their roof. A rescue helicopter comes by. The pilot tells them to get in. “We will wait,” says the couple again. “G-d will save us.”
 
When the water level rises again, the couple drowns. They meet G-d and ask, “Why didn’t you save us?” To which G-d responds, “I sent a warning car, a boat, and a helicopter to save you. What more did you want?”
This shows that you cannot ask for a miracle and expect it to happen in a HUGE way. You have to be ready to see it. Maybe it is there all the time, and you miss it by waiting for the Hollywood version of a big-screen miracle.
 
Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”  However, there is an in between. You can believe that some things are miracles, while others aren’t.
 
This is important because it connects to something I hear a lot. “It would take a miracle” people say. People beg for miracles. What they don’t think about is something I called the opinionated miracle. As in, it appears as a miracle to some people while it’s natural for others.
 
For instance, back to the Hanukkah story, the oil lasts for 8 days. How long does a light bulb last? Typical iridescent light bulbs last 1,000 to 2,000 hours. Compare that to 8 days. Doesn’t seem so miraculous, does it?
 
Well, imagine if we didn’t have lights, just natural light. Imagine if I showed you the light bulb. Now it seems kinda amazing, doesn’t it?
 
If you were in a wheelchair paralyzed, how would walking seem?
 
If you weighed 450 tons, and had metal wings, would you be able to fly? Well, aren’t airplanes miracles then?
 
David Ben Gurion was Israel’s first prime minister. It is believed that the following quote came from him, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.”  Meaning the fact Israel exists at all is a miracle, if you look at it the right way.
 
My haftarah includes some things that could be viewed as miraculous. “And many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be My people, and I will dwell in the midst of you'; and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me unto you.”
 
This is G-D telling us he will be among us. How will we know if G-D is among us? Miracles. But, He will only be among us when we already believe He is here.
 
Back to Hanukkah, the miracle of the Maccabees winning their war, and the oil lasting. They truly believed in these miracles. And that makes it so much more amazing.
 
So how do we connect this to our daily lives?
 
First, if you help others – you can help G-d make miracles. This year my mother and I chose to “adopt” a family for the holidays, and buy them their holiday presents. They all asked for socks.
 
Can you imagine if what you had to ask for during the holidays was socks from a random stranger? When we give tzedakah, we put positive energy into the world and help create those small miracles that make the world better.
 
Secondly, if you want a miracle, you must believe in them. You must choose to notice the wonder of the world.  And you will see the miracles everywhere.
 
So here is the challenge for every one of us. Live our lives like everything is a miracle, just like Einstein says. We may be surprised how different things seem. Kind of like Chanukah all year long.
 
Shabbat Shalom!

Parshat Vayeshev by Jessie SchnoorDecember 5, 2015

Shabbat Shalom.

This week’s parashah is Vayeshev.  There are a lot people featured in this parashah:  There is Jacob and there is Joseph, and there are Joseph’s 11 brothers and all their moms; there is Judah, Shua, Air, Onan, Shelah and Tamar; there is Potiphar and his wife; Pharoah’s chief cupbearer and baker.
There are also a lot of stories within this parashah:  Vayeshev is where Jacob gives Joseph the famous coat of many colours.  There is the story between Joseph and his brothers.  There is the story between Judah and Tamar.  And there is the story of Joseph in Egypt.

There are also a lot of themes in Vayeshev.  There is jealousy, attempted murder, the interpretation of dreams and seduction.  I could do a whole D’var Torah on Tamar’s seduction of Judah!…But I don’t really want to.  Instead, I am going to focus on the themes of favouritism and sibling rivalry.  Joseph was Jacob’s favourite son.  What is clear is that Joseph was hated by his brothers. They tried to kill him, and then they sold him into slavery in Egypt.     

When Jacob gives Joseph the coat of many colours, naturally, his brothers become jealous.  They take this special gift as a sign that one day Joseph will be the boss of them, and they don’t like it.

And then there were the two dreams.  First, Joseph dreams that he is binding sheaves of wheat with his brothers.  Suddenly Joseph’s sheaf stands up straight while the others bend down.  Joseph interprets this to mean that one day his brothers will bow down to him.  In Joseph’s second dream, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars are all bowing towards Joseph.  Joseph’s interpretation is that one day, his father, his mother, and his eleven brothers will bow down to him.

The Midrash in B’reshit Rabbah 84.7 says that Joseph is an immature, big-mouthed, self-centred and vain 17-year-old.  Joseph tended to share every thought that popped into his head.  He was said to use special brushes to curl his hair, special pencils to make his eyes appear more beautiful, and to have added heels to his shoes to make himself appear taller, older and more handsome.
 
So this is what we know:

  1. Joseph was self-centred;
  2. Joseph’s brothers were cruel to him;
  3. Jacob favoured Joseph.

 

But how did this cycle begin?  We don’t know which of these events triggered the others.  It’s the chicken and the egg argument.

Again in B’reshit Rabbah 84.7, Joseph was said to tattle on his brothers.  When his brothers were tending to the flocks in the fields, Joseph would spy on them, and bring back any nasty reports he could and share them with his father Jacob.  We could go one step further and say that Joseph made up lies about his brothers in order to make himself look better.  The Midrash goes on to say that Joseph told Jacob that his brothers would eat un-kosher meat, and insult each other.

Rashi, an 11th century French commentator, says that Joseph took advantage of every chance to gossip, tattle and spread lies about his brothers.  This made his brothers hate and mistrust him even more.

The late Reform Rabbi Julian Morgenstern blamed Jacob for spoiling Joseph from the start, which led to him thinking that he was better than his brothers.  Why would Jacob do this? In the Parashah, B’reshit 37:3, we read that Jacob was extremely old when Joseph was born; Joseph was also the firstborn to Rachel, who we learned earlier in B’reshit, was the favoured wife of Jacob. Joseph was the 11th son of 12.  As one of the babies of the family, maybe he was able to get away with bad behaviour. 

Rabbi Judah says in B’reshit Rabbah 84.8 that Jacob favoured Joseph because they looked alike. 

Joseph was self-centred which made his brothers hate him.  Is it possible that Jacob felt pity on Joseph, and that’s why he favoured him? 

Writer Elie Wiesel stated that the brothers “should have felt sorry for their orphaned brother, whose mother had died tragically….They should have tried to console him; instead they made him feel unwanted, an outsider.  Their father favoured him above all others, and why not?  Jacob loved [Joseph] best because he was unhappy.  But they refused to understand and treated him as an intruder.”

Rabbi Manes Kogan of the Hillcrest Jewish Center of New York offers another perspective on his website, about why Jacob favoured his son Joseph.  He raises the point that the favouritism of Joseph may be hereditary.  Abraham favoured Isaac over Ishmael; Isaac favoured Esau while Rebecca favoured Jacob, and of course Jacob favours Joseph.  By the time Joseph comes around, favouritism is practically a family tradition!

On the one hand, shouldn’t Jacob have known better?  He experienced first-hand the effects of favouritism in his own family.  Or, maybe Jacob thought that favouritism is normal.  Maybe, in Biblical times, favouritism wasnormal…and it was just unfortunate if you were the disfavoured child.

The story of Joseph was written a very long time ago, but we can still easily relate to these issues in modern times.  I chose the theme of favouritism and sibling rivalry because of the relevance in families today.

Ilan Shrira is a social psychologist at the University of Denver who writes about when parents play favourites in Psychology Today. As you might expect, the effects of favouritism are mostly bad. 

Shrira argues that sometimes favouritism is necessary.  If you have a child with special needs or an extreme talent – like sports or music – it might be fair that that child is favoured.  However, I argue that this is not necessarily favouritism, it is just giving more attention to kids who need it.

Studies show that disfavoured children will tend to do worse in life than favoured children will do better.  Disfavoured children tend to have more depression, aggressiveness, lower self-esteem and worse academic performance.  Sometimes disfavoured children may resent favoured children, starting a rivalry between them.  When there is no favouritism towards any child, then all the children will do better than one would if they were favoured.

Like Joseph, I know what it’s like to live with siblings, and I know that you won’t always get along.  In preparing for my Bat Mitzvah, I have been thinking about the idea that fair is not equal. 

If you have two children, one with straight teeth and the other with crooked teeth, you might spend thousands of dollars to fix the child’s crooked teeth with braces.  This is a great example of fair is not equal.  It is fair that the kids both have the chance to have straight teeth, but it’s not equal because you’re spending more money on one kid than the other. 

Sometimes it is necessary to give more attention to kids who need it.  For example, over the past few months, I have gotten more attention than my siblings in order to prepare for today.  I know it doesn’t mean that I am favoured, it just means that I needed more of my parents’ time.  It’s fair, because I needed the time, but not equal, because I got more time than my sisters. 

Every day, my mom walks Kyra and Lily to school when I take the subway by myself.  It’s not that my mom wants to give them more of her time, it’s just that they’re younger and need more parental oversight.  It’s fair, because they are young and my mom wants them to be safe, but it’s not equal, because I don’t get escorted to school.

I can understand why Joseph’s brothers were mad at him, but I don’t understand what Joseph did that made them so mad that they would want to kill him.

Having two younger sisters, I know what it’s like to be frustrated or angry with them, but I have never gotten to get to the point where I even want to hurt them. 

Joseph’s brothers had every right to be upset with him.  Joseph treated them badly, but even the thought of killing him went too far. 

Whatever Jacob’s reason – whether Joseph looked like him, or if he felt badly for him, or if he just liked him best – it’s not right to favour one child over another.

It’s true: We can’t ever control the actions and feelings of others.  Joseph couldn’t control his brothers’ unkind actions towards him; the brothers couldn’t control Jacob’s feelings toward Joseph.  But what we can do is educate each other about the negative consequences of favouritism.

If you are a child, and you are not getting the exact same treatment as your sibling, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your parents favour your sibling over you.  Remember that fair is not always equal. 

If you are a parent, you may relate to one of your children more strongly than another.  However, this is not an excuse to favour that child.  I hope I have shown that favouritism usually works out badly for everybody – even the favoured child.

If Abraham didn’t favour Isaac, then maybe Isaac wouldn’t have favoured Esau, and maybe Esau’s twin brother Jacob wouldn’t have favoured Joseph.  Then Jacob wouldn’t have given Joseph the coat of many colours, and his brothers wouldn’t have sold him into slavery in Egypt leading to our people’s enslavement for hundreds of years.  So, if Abraham hadn’t favoured Isaac, we could argue that we wouldn’t have been slaves in Egypt.

This was one long and hard domino effect.

From this we learn a very simple truth: If we are not always aware of our actions – we may start a whole negative chain of events.  As a Bat Mitzvah, I know this message is one I will take to heart, and I hope we will all do the same.

Shabbat Shalom. 
  

Parshat Vayetzei by Asher McCreadyNovember 21, 2015

Lying. We all do it. Don’t go and think, “What? Me? Never!”...because then, you would be lying. To yourself. But when people think of the heroes in the Torah they don’t think of them as dirty lying cheaters. I always thought of them as truthful holy people. That was, until I read my Torah portion. Wow, I was really wrong about some things a year ago.
 
So now my D’var torah is about lying in Judaism. Hang on, this might take a while. Don’t worry, though...at the end you will be rewarded with cake.
 
The parsha starts with Ya'akov departing from Beer-sheba to the distant city of Haran to meet his uncle Lavan because he fears Esau’s wrath, and also to find a wife with his own people. On the way, Ya'akov meets Rachel, daughter of Lavan, and falls in love with her.
 
A couple of years later, Ya'akov has been working for Lavan for quite a while as a shepherd. Lavan wants to know what Ya'akov wants as his wages. Ya'akov wants Rachel’s hand in marriage. Lavan agrees to the deal but only if Ya'akov works 7 years for him. Seven years pass, and Lavan sets a wedding for Ya'akov but puts Leah, his eldest daughter, in the dress and veil instead of Rachel.
 
When Ya'akov realizes this, Lavan lies that there is a custom to marry off the oldest before the youngest. He says he will give him Rachel if he works another seven years. Seven more years pass, Ya'akov gets Rachel, and has 12 sons with Leah, Rachel, and their two maidservants Bilah and Zilpah.
 
When I look through my parsha, I find that just about every line has lying, cheating, stealing, or subterfuge in it, and almost every kind of lie or deception. Not that I counted, but there are actually 36 different instances in my parsha. Wait, I admit that’s a lie. I counted. For obvious reasons, I narrowed it down to a few key examples to discuss.
 
The first major lie in the portion is Lavan committing the Leah-Rachel deception. There is no question about it - it’s a blatant lie. As you might expect, in the commentaries there is a fair amount of discussion about it. For example, Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom notes that in a midrash from Bereishit rabbah, the rabbis say that when Ya'akov asks Leah why she answered to Rachel, she said "Is there a barber without students?” i.e. even the best barber needs a student who will cut his hair; Likewise: “I am only your student. Didn't your father call out 'Esav' and you responded?"
 
Leah was basically calling Ya'akov a hypocrite for chastising her about pretending to be Rachel, saying that she was only doing what he did to Issac. In other words, the deception with Lavan was payback for stealing Esau’s birthright.
 
Lavan doesn’t stop there. His relationship with Ya'akov is one of constant subterfuge. For example, Lavan made a deal to compensate Ya'akov for his work that would see Ya'akov get all of the goats of the flock that were speckled or spotted. But Lavan then ordered his sons to take the goats of that description away from the main flock the day before Ya'akov was set to get them.
 
Faced with being swindled out of his goats by Lavan, Ya'akov proceeds to selectively breed the goats behind Lavan’s back so that all of the healthy goats were likely to produce spotted or speckled young, whereas the sickly goats were likely to produce pure white young. The result? A flock of healthy goats for Ya'akov, and not-so healthy ones for Lavan.
 
Ya'akov’s only other explicit deception was his hasty departure while Lavan had gone to shear his sheep. I think we have to consider, though, that Ya'akov lived and worked with Lavan for the better part of two decades and was being cheated the entire time, including out of his promised wife. They would have spoken frequently, and yet neither of them killed the other. The reasonable conclusion is that Ya'akov was lying constantly to avoid telling Lavan what he really thought.
 
How does this make sense when throughout the Torah, it is clear that lying is strongly discouraged?
 
In Exodus 20:13, we read the famous commandment, “You shall not bear false witness,” then a few verses later in 23:7, "Distance yourself from a false matter" not only reminding us not to lie, but to stay away from other people’s lies. Later again in Leviticus 19:11, the commandments are repeated "you shall not steal, you shall not deny falsely, and you shall not lie one to another"
 
Yet in the story right before my parsha, we find one of our patriarchs, Ya’akov, lying to his father Isaac even when one of the other commandments specifically states “Honor your father and mother.” I don’t think that that lying to get the birth-right counts as honoring them, even if it was for the sake of the Jewish people. Then there is the complication of honoring the orders of his mother.
 
Reading all of this in the Torah, maybe deception is not such a no-no after all?
 
I learned that there are some talmudic commentaries that have different perspectives. In Ketubot( k’too-boat) 17a, Adapted from Soncino Translation, the rabbis ask: “How does one praise the bride?”
 
Beit Shammai say: “Praise the bride based on how she is,” while Beit Hillel say: “Beautiful and graceful bride”. Then, Beit shammai said to Beit Hillel: “If she is ugly, how can one call her a beautiful and graceful bride? Doesn’t the Torah say to distance one from false matters?”
 
Beit Hillel replies: “According to you, if one has made a bad purchase in the market, should one praise the purchase or make him feel bad? Surely one should praise it.” The section summarizes these examples by saying, “One should always get along with other people.”
 
According to Beit Shammai, one may not lie and tell a bride that she looks nice, if in reality, she doesn't. According to Beit Hillel, exaggerating is sometimes part of our obligation to get along with other individuals. I think this indicates a complication we find ourselves in not just at a wedding.
 
Also from the Talmud, Yevamot 65b, Rabbi Ila’a further stated in the name of Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Shimon, “One may modify a statement in the interests of peace.”  Rabbi Natan responds, “It is a commandment.”
 
By looking at that example and many others, I notice that all the lies accepted and sometimes even required by Judaism, are generally selfless in nature. Like to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.
 
For example, if I was playing Minecraft with my friend and we were teamed together. If my friend wasn't playing very well and got killed a lot, then asked me whether he was playing well, I know that the right thing to do would be to say that he was playing well to avoid hurting his feelings. I know this is what I would want if the tables, or in this case, computers were turned.
 
Not surprisingly, Judaism generally discourages lies that are selfish in nature. Like to get yourself out of trouble. For example if someone ate a butter tart when that person wasn’t supposed to. And, when confronted did the wrong thing and lied.
 
A glance at the newspaper or the average conversation in a school’s hallway shows that our world is full of lying and these rules are handy to know, so you can know the difference between a good lie and a bad lie, when a lie pops up. Looking back at my parsha with an eye to good lies versus bad, we notice something interesting. Lavan lies selfishly to Ya’akov many times, but when Ya’akov deceives Lavan, it is consistently with the goals of justice or peace. For example, Ya’akov deceives Lavan to get more sheep out of a bargain, but only so that the result is fair. His decisions to lie unselfishly when he’s out on his own are in contrast to his selfish lie to steal the birthright when he was under his parent’s roof.
 
So Ya’akov’s approach to deception changed as he matured. As it turns out, lying plays an important role in the transition from child to adult.
 
With our example, the mom finds a butter tart missing and her son is found with crumbs all over his face. When his mom asks him if he took the tart, and he lies - the child’s most likely reasoning is that he did not understand the social consequences of the lie and he wanted to say the ‘right’ answer ( i.e “the one that makes Ima proud” or maybe the one that wouldn’t get him in so much trouble?). Then, the parents would generally teach the child that lying is wrong.
 
In the June 2014 issue of Psychology Today, Dr. Denise Cummings wrote, “deception occurs when one individual deliberately and successfully convinces another individual to accept as true what the first individual knows to be false.”
 
She continues, “In order to lie successfully, a person:

●must be able to tell the difference between what is true and what is false,
●must know that it is possible for a someone to have a false belief,
●must be able to suppress their knowledge of the true state of affairs while communicating something contrary to fact,
●And must deliberately intend to plant a false belief.

These are the cognitive demands of deception. And they take a long time to develop in childhood.

She explains that fMRI research shows that before children are teenagers, they do not use the prefrontal regions during deception efficiently because these areas of the brain are not yet fully mature.

In other words, Dr. Denise Cummings is saying that you need to be at least a teenager to lie effectively on your own. In that section just before my Torah portion, Ya’akov needed his mother to help him lie to Isaac. That lie doesn’t demonstrate much independent skill. How hard is it to lie to a blind, half deaf, and senile old man? Once he is on his own as an adult, however, Ya’akov is able to sneak away without Lavan’s permission and to perform subterfuge to get more sheep out of their deal.
 
As a Bar Mitzvah, I have enough brain power now to get away with lying on my own. My job will have to be choosing not to. Easier said than done really. Especially when those delicious butter tarts are sitting right there...
 
Having to make decisions even when I might feel like lying, when it might really “benefit” me to lie, and when my immense almost-adult brain could get away with it - still choosing not to - sounds tough. Tougher than sneaking away with some sheep or chanting a few lines of Torah in Hebrew.
 
Dr. Adam Cox studies youth neuropsychology, particularly looking at emotional and cognitive development. In his 2007 article, The Plain Truth about Lying Kids, he says that one important thing to consider is why teens lie. Dr. Cox writes “There is a difference between lying and becoming a liar. While the former is inevitable, the latter is not. All types of deception should be taken seriously, although not necessarily responded to in the same way. Before you respond to an adolescent's suspected lie, ask yourself what motivated the lie. On some level, any unwanted behavior is anxious for understanding, which is not the same as acceptance.”

So even if Ya’akov lies, that doesn’t necessarily make him a liar and it helps to understand why he did it - maybe that is the reason we read the parsha year after year.

Dr. Cox also indicates “Lying is also a strategy some children employ to build a barrier, as a way of keeping their real self self unknown to others. We may understand these motivations, yet still recognize the need to get lying under control.”

As a Bar Mitzvah this topic holds special meaning for me as today I become a Jewish adult. I cannot tell a lie - actually I became a Bar Mitzvah 67 days ago on my 13th birthday on Rosh Hashanah, but you get my meaning.
 
When we put together the story of this parsha with what we’ve learned about Jewish law and psychology, it makes sense. The immature Ya’akov still living with his parents follows his mother’s instructions in the selfish lie of stealing Esau’s birthright. When he strikes out on his own as an independent Jewish adult able to make his own decisions about how to use his capacity for deception, he chooses a different path. While he is not fully honest with Lavan, his deceptions are for the sake of justice -- making an unfair deal more fair -- and for the sake of peace -- not confronting Lavan directly about his dishonesty.

For someone newly Bar Mitzvah like me, this is good example. It shows that even if we are taught bad habits or learn them on our own when we are growing up - and, heck, we are always growing up - we can always decide to take responsibility for our choices to be less than fully truthful and only do that in pursuit of peace and justice.

Oh, and by the way the cake is a lie. There will be butter tarts at the Kiddush though. My Bubi’s unbelievably delicious butter tarts.That’s the truth.

Shabbat Shalom everyone.
 

Parshat Toldot by Malcolm McCreadyNovember 21, 2015

Shabbat Shalom

Today’s torah portion is called Toldot.  It is the well known story of  2 brothers Jacob and Esau. Because Jacob started the twelve tribes of Israel, the rabbis often present Jacob as good and Esau as evil or alternatively Jacob and Esau as a story about anti semitism . "shimon bar yochai is quoted in the midrash as saying..., "It is a law that Esau hates Jacob." 
But I see my Torah portion as a story about real people with real life problems. Toldot is about a biblical family that could easily be a modern “dysfunctional” family, and a situation that goes from sad to miserable.
At the beginning of the portion, Rebekah feels a strange sensation in her womb and God tells her that she will have twins. Each child will start a tribe. The tribe of the second baby will be very mighty and the other one will not be.

Jacob and Esau are born. Esau comes out first, and Jacob comes out holding onto Esau’s heel. Jacob grows up to be a homebody and studies a lot while Esau becomes a hunter and  outdoorsman. One day, when Esau comes home from a hunting trip starving (quite literally starving as in on the verge of death), he asks Jacob for a little bit of the lentil soup he was making. Jacob replies that he will only give his brother the life-saving soup in exchange for his birthright. Esau agrees, because what use is a birthright if you are dead?
When your brother will only save your life if you hand over your birthright, there is definitely a problem. This is a big red flag which highlights the dysfunctional dynamics in this family. No matter how different two brothers are, could they really relate this badly if they played together in the backyard, slept together in the same tent and shared meals together? Did neither Rebekah nor Isaac ever intervene when the boys had fights?
When Isaac is ready to give Esau the firstborn blessing, he asks Esau to fetch the nicest game he can find, and give it to his mother to cook. Rebekah has hidden a fine animal  just for this moment. She cooks the animal, dresses Jacob in Esau’s finest clothes, puts a lambskin on him to replicate Esau’s hairy arm and asks Jacob to trick his elderly, blind father into giving him the firstborn blessing. Isaac gives Jacob the blessing just as Esau walks in with his game. Esau realizes what happened and prays at his father’s feet for a blessing, but Isaac can only say, “You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck.”. Some blessing! So Esau comes up with a plan to kill Jacob. Rebekah hears about the plan, and tells Jacob to run away.

OK, so there is another pretty bad problem. Esau’s own mother (Rebekah) tricks her husband Isaac into giving Jacob the firstborn blessing instead of Esau, the actual firstborn. In modern times, we might call what Rebekah did, “Elder abuse.” And Jacob goes along with it. Between this and birthright blackmail, how is he the personification of goodness (remember what Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said?) Meanwhile Isaac, none too pleased with the situation makes a not-so-subtle suggestion to Esau on what to do about it. 

In the end nobody is happy. Jacob is on the road trying to find a wife, which he only gets after working for his uncle Laban for fourteen years, longer than I have been alive, Esau disappears into the mountains and Isaac and Rebekah probably die hating each other because of what happened with the blessing.

What is the source of all this dysfunction?
According to Rabbi Rebekah Stern at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, California  “Isaac carries this legacy of sibling favoritism into his relationship with his own sons, and Rebekah adds to the hurt and hate between the brothers as she favors Jacob over Esau. We can explain their choices by saying that Isaac appropriately favored and intended to bless his older son, as was apparently the common custom, while Rebekah's actions are in response to God's revealed intention that ‘. . . the elder shall serve the younger. . . ‘ (Genesis 25:23). Though maybe we should not allow Rebekah to hide behind God’s will. She is clearly doing what she believes to be in her best interest. 

When we look at the stories of the torah we can see dysfunction resulting from favouritism being passed down from generation to generation - from Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Joseph. Abraham favoured Isaac over Ishmael at Sarah, his wife’s request. Perhaps this is where Isaac gets the idea that favouring one child over the other is ‘normal’. Then Isaac favoured Esau. Rebekah favoured Jacob. In turn Jacob’s favouritism affected Joseph, who suffers greatly at the hands of his brothers as a result. 

Of course, when talking about the events that shape Isaac’s life one cannot forget the Akedah. As we recall each year on Rosh Hashana, Isaac was led by his father to be sacrificed. It was at the moment when Isaac realizes that he will die that God orders Abraham to stop. Rashi attributes Isaac’s blindness in old age to tears dropped from the eyes of angels into Isaac’s eyes during this event. Here we see how the events of the past affect current phenomena.

It is striking that none of the characters seem to understand anyone else’s point of view. So let me try for a minute. 

Think about it from Isaac’s point of view. He died knowing that his wife had purposefully deceived him taking away the most important thing of his favourite son’s life and giving it to the other one.  And he has no idea where his sons are, when he dies.

Rebecca was probably just scared of the revenge that Isaac would seek in response to her tricking him into giving Jacob the blessing. I don’t think that she would have a guilty conscience since she thought that she was doing God’s handiwork. 

Now think about it from Esau's perspective. He lives with the understanding that his brother showed him so much hatred that he was forced to give up his birthright in order to have a bit of life saving soup. And if that was not bad enough his brother continues his disregard by very intentionally stealing Esau’s blessing.

Finally think about Jacob’s point of view. He knows that somewhere out there his brother wants to kill him, his father hates him, and he probably has a guilty conscience about taking away his brother’s birthright. But good things can come from bad things. After he escaped his brother, Jacob went on to be the father of the tribes of Israel. Not to say that what Rebekah did was good, but it is possible that good things can come from bad things.

With apologies to whoever is doing the dvar torah two weeks from now, I would like to skip ahead to the story of how Jacob and Esau resolve their differences. It is 22 years later. Jacob married Leah and Rachel, and leaves Laban to strike out on his own. Jacob sends a message to Esau hoping to resolve their conflict. But then some strange things happen. Jacob wrestles with an angel or God or the sages say the spirit Esau. But I say he wrestled with his own conscience and he comes to terms with how badly he treated Esau. Jacob is frightened. He sends gifts to appease Esau. He sees Esau coming and bows down to him. Finally the brothers meet, they embrace and Esau kisses Jacob. Rashi questions whether Esau’s kiss is sincere, but I am not sure that we or Jacob should care. 

Sheldon Lewis in his book “Torah of Reconciliation says, “Jacob is the best example in Torah of personal transformation. He overcomes a deceitful past and grows into a mature man desirous of overcoming hatred. He is willing to take risks to create a new beginning of brotherhood with Esau. His hard work overcomes the pent-up hatred and anger, which Esau surely harbored.”

This might not be a happy ending, but it is a useful life lesson. Jacob endured, confronted and resolved conflict - and became a better person for it. 

Stories like Toldot are in the Torah for a similar reason to why we study history; so that we do not repeat it. I did not understand the point of history until somebody pointed out that history is not just words; it has a message if we read it closely. 

I want to suggest that this story teaches us an important lesson: lack of communication and bonding with family can lead to hate and sorrow among siblings and parents. My dad is a fan of the expression ”A family who eats together keeps together” (which his Grandma Rose use to say to him).  My mother is a fan of the family vacation as an opportunity for bonding. If Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Esau had tried harder and made time to understand each other’s concerns, their story might have been happier.  Parent’s do not have one blessing as Isaac says when he tells Esau that he already gave it away. In fact, all of us have many blessings to share with each other. In my family there are a lot of blessings to go around and all of us kids are treated equally for the most part. 

Jacob and Esau had missed a communication or missed a blessing, but after many years of being separated, they were able to forgive each other and be brothers again. And now you, all of the congregants, friends and family who are here today, I would like all of us to try to give as many blessings as we can give, and pass on an equal, nonbiased message to each other and future generations.


Shabbat Shalom

Parshat Ki Tavo by Cooper Mandel September 5, 2015

Shabbat Shalom. My Torah portion, Ki Tavo literally means “when you enter,” referring to when the Israelites enter “the land of Israel”. 
 
This parsha takes place at the tail end of the forty years that Moses and the Israelites have spent wandering the desert. Moses knows he is getting old and is about to die and will not be “entering the land of Israel” or “the promised land” with the Israelites. He spells out for the Israelites all the commandments (basically the do’s and the don’ts) that they must follow when they enter Israel and settle there. He also states the rewards (referred to as the blessings) and the punishments (referred to as the curses) for following or breaking these “do’s” and “don’ts.”
 
The dramatic ceremony for receiving these blessings and curses was as follows:
 
Representatives of six tribes Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin stood upon Mount Gerizim to hear the blessings of good that will come from observing God’s commandments. Facing the six representatives on Mount Gerizim, six other representatives from Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali stood upon Mount Ebal to hear the curses for disobeying the commandments. God promises blessings of plenty, peace and security to the representatives on Mount Gerizim for obeying the commandments. God also promises consequences of destruction, agony, want and exile to the six representatives on Mount Ebal if the commandments are disobeyed.
 
As I read through Ki Tavo I found that the curses seem to outweigh the blessings. I also noticed the harshness of many of these curses. If you think I’m  kidding, there is even a tradition that when the curses are read publicly they are chanted in a whisper because they are so frightening and gut wrenching. Here is an example of one such curse, “though you beget sons and daughters, they shall not remain with you, for they shall go into captivity.” I can not even imagine what my mother and father would do knowing that I would be taken away from them. And of course, we know the terrible feeling when that came true, as the Jewish people were indeed exiled and their children brought into captivity not once but twice, with the destruction of both Temples.
 
What I would like to focus on this morning is: Why were the consequences for breaking the commandments so harsh?
 
Rashi, an 11th century Torah commentator says, “Be as quick to obey a minor mitzvah as a major one; and flee from transgression, for one mitzvah performed leads to another; and one transgression leads to another.” I believe Rashi is suggesting that the consequences of not doing the commandments are so harsh, because if you disobey one commandment you will easily disobey others. I think Rashi must have known about the domino effect. He also, was probably a good judge of character and understood that psychologically if someone can get away with one thing they might be tempted to try and get away with another thing. For example, if someone drives through a red light and sees that they have not gotten caught, they might be tempted to drive through more red lights until they get caught and receive a ticket.  
 
Similar to Rashi’s comment, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most renowned Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, says “If we perform one good deed, we move the scale toward blessing. One transgression and we move the scale into the realm of curses.”
 
In my opinion, a transgression from one person might also lead to a transgression from another person. One way is that if a person sees that another person is doing a misdeed they might think it is ok to do it too. Another way is that if someone commits a sin against you, it may cause you to seek revenge.   
 
This idea of preventing revenge is what Rambam, a 12th century Torah commentator says when he suggests revenge is less likely to happen if you know that a consequence will befall the person who sinned against you. So Rambam is saying the point of consequences is to have fewer people commit transgressions and seek revenge.  
 
Interestingly, Adrian A. Durlester, a religious school teacher at Beth El Temple in West Hartford, Connecticut, says on his website, that God was so harsh with the Israelites because they were like children. They had been slaves for many years and had no experiences and nothing to relate to, and yet the Israelites were about to establish their first real community. In order to establish an ethical and sustainable community, it needs not only rules but consequences for not obeying those rules. The rules and consequences had to be so spelled out and so powerful according to Durlester, so that even the Israelite’s simple understanding would allow them to comprehend.   
 
Likewise, the late Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, says “They (the curses) help define the consequences of our actions although there are times when such consequences are beyond our understanding. Most of the time, however, the curses function as warning signs. They signal what we should NOT do.” 
 
My personal opinion is that since God knew that Moses would be dying and be unable to enter the land of Israel with the Israelites, God felt he needed to be extra tough with the Israelites since they no longer would benefit from Moses leadership. The consequences for breaking the rules had to be extreme because of Moses’s absence in guiding the people. God might have been saying “ Hey Israelites, after 40 years it is now time to guide yourselves and I’ll make it extra easy for you to do so since if you break the rules there will be grave consequences.” That sure would get me in line pretty quickly!
 
Not only were rules and the consequences for breaking them so important for the Israelites back then, but they are equally as important for us today. 
 
When I was a kid, I often got into trouble as most little kids do. I used to play fight with my cousins. I remember getting time outs and being told that we were leaving immediately and thinking to myself, why am I getting punished for just playing? Isn’t this harsh and unfair, I want to stay and play with my cousins longer. Now I realize that I needed those harsh punishments to teach me that fighting without a purpose is never right, even if it is just for fun. Just like the Israelites, the consequences were so harsh, so that I too, would always follow the rules under any circumstances. 
 
But was it good enough for the Israelites or for me to just follow the rules? I think God wanted something more. I think God wanted to teach the Israelites how to behave and the right characteristics to possess. God wanted the Israelites to go above and beyond. I want to go above and beyond too since I would like to make a difference in the world in some kind of positive way. It's entirely possible that God also wanted to “train” the Israelites to do the right thing not out of fear of the bad consequences, but out of the positive desire to do what is right in the first place. 
 
If I was to say the most important thing I’d want to leave you with - it’s that we not only need to follow rules, but also to rise above what’s expected. For example, we read in Devarim chapter 27, verse 16, “Cursed be anyone who insults father or mother.” It isn’t good enough to not disrespect your parents, but you must go out of your way to help and do things for them even before they ask in order to be respectful and appreciative. Or as we read in verse 18, “Cursed be the one who misdirects a blind person underway.” Again, it is not enough to just not misdirect a blind man, but we must lead and help a blind man reach his destination.  I think you get the idea.
 
All over the world there are rules and consequences for disobeying these rules. A place without rules is just mayhem and chaos. Nothing is wrong nor right, because no one knows the difference.No community can exist without a framework of rules, to which everybody agrees.
 
And this brings me to the topic of community.- Without a framework of rules, and consequences for breaking them, we can not benefit from a community. Consequences are often used to enforce and keep communities going. And Community is so important to me. Think about it this way, when you are in trouble, your friends, family and community back you up. Without community you would feel lonely and unhappy. One individual doesn’t know everything, but when a community is combined and everybody shares their skills, it is far more beneficial to the community’s goals. 
 
Some of the communities that I belong to are the City Shul, my school (Robbin’s Hebrew Academy) and my community of 3 as I like to call it - me, my mother, and my father - my family. 
 
Both City Shul and Robbin’s Hebrew Academy give me a Jewish education, a comfortable Jewish environment, a holy place to worship and many relationships with friends, teachers and other adults. Up until now I’ve taken a lot from both of these places, but now I hope to give back to both communities in the future through volunteer hours and helping others.
 
My family gives me basically everything, without asking a lot in return. I give back by helping my parents when they ask, doing chores and staying out of trouble. 
 
In conclusion, God wanted to start a community where everyone is altruistic, respectful, generous, honest and spiritual. And today I want to encourage everyone to look at the deeper lessons behind rules and act upon what these rules encourage and inspire us to do within our communities. 
 
Shabbat Shalom!

Parshat Bo by Nathan de LaraMarch 21, 2015

Today is a special Shabbat, not only because it is my Bar Mitzvah, but because it is Shabbat hachodesh, which means the first Shabbat of the month of Nisan, not the car company,  the Jewish month when we commemorate Passover.  Actually the month of Nisan starts today, so it is a rare day with three torahs.  One for the regular Torah reading, one for Shabbat Hachodesh the first Shabbat of the month of Pesach, and one for Rosh Chodesh, the first day of this new month of Nisan. 

The parasha we read from today is Vayikra, but because it is Shabat hachodesh the maftir, which is the part that I will be reading from, is parashat Bo. While Vayikra describes rules around sacrifices, today I would like to talk to you about one special sacrifice, which is described in Parashat Bo.

Parashat Bo describes the last three plagues that God inflicted on theEgyptians: the swarm of locusts, darkness and the tenth plague which was the death of the first born of all Egyptians.  God commanded the Israelites to prepare for the tenth plague by sacrificing a lamb, and using the lamb’s blood to sprinkle on their door frame. This blood on the door frame would let the angel of death, sent by God, distinguish the homes of the Israelites from those of the Egyptians to skip or literally pass over, the Israelite’s homes and kill the first born of the Egyptians who would not have had the mark on their doors. The parasha describes in detail how to put the blood on the door frame, eat the lamb and even what to do if you are not able to eat the entire lamb. 

After the last plague where all the Egyptian’s first borns are killed, Pharaoh agrees to let the Israelites go. Then, something that really surprised me happened: the Jews went to the Egyptians houses and asked them for gold as payment. 

Between the sacrificing of the lamb, spreading blood on the door posts and asking the Egyptians for gold, the Jews had to rush out once pharaoh said they could leave. They left so quickly that their bread didn’t have time to rise so they ate matza, as we do every passover to commemorate the transition to freedom. 

When I heard this story the question that came to mind is why did God require the Israelites to mark their homes? wouldn’t God know which homes were Jewish homes? I read on a BBC website that the lamb was a sacred animal to the Egyptians. This suggests that if someone were to slaughter a lamb, and put its blood on their doors it would certainly anger theEgyptians. So, when God commanded the Jews to mark their homes, he was not only telling them to literally insult the Egyptians by using the blood of their sacred animal, but also measuring their trust - only those Jews who had a big enough trust in God and were willing to risk their lives, would be saved from the 10th plague. Therefore, the blood on the door was not to tell the angel of death where the Jews lived, because he/she should already know, but I believe that it was to tell the angel of death where the trueJews lived - true Jews being those who were willing to risk the anger of theEgyptians for their faith in God.  

God also commands that the month of Nisan shall be for the Jews the first of the months of the year. Rashi points out that this is actually the first instruction or commandment given to the newly freed people of Israel, and it is when the covenant between God and the Jews is established.  Rashi explains that the instruction is to use the month of Nisan as a reference point, so this becomes “month one”. Rabbi Moshe Ben Najman, or Ramban, explained further that this is not just a technical thing, where we now name months as “first month”, or “second month”. Rather, it refers to the idea that everything is to be thought of in reference to this month when God freed the israelites from slavery in the land of Egypt. Placing things in reference to where we come from, or our past and keeping this past as a frame of reference for all our experiences, and placing all our Jewish history, past present and futurein reference to our beginning as slaves and our eventual freedom. 

Rabbi Danny Burkeman, a British rabbi in New York who publishes the blog “Two Minutes of Torah”,  mentions that in addition to establishing the covenant, the marking of the Israelites homes with the lamb’s blood is also the first time that Jewish homes were identifiable from the outside. 

The Israelites were commanded to dip a herb in the blood of the sacrifical lamb, and apply it to their doorposts. The word for doorpost in Hebrew is “mezuzah”, and this blood of a lamb was the first time the Jews marked their homes. Nowadays we place a mezuzah on our doorpost, or a mezuzah on our mezuzah. 

I wondered when did the Jews start to use mezuzas to mark their homes. According to the Jewish Encyclopaedia, Josephus, the Roman-Jewish historian that lived in the 1st Century of the common era,  talked about the mezuzah as an old and well established costum. It is possible that the Jews started to use mezuzot since they made their homes in the land of Canaan. At that time, they were not using the mezuzot to mark and separate Jewish homes since everybody was Jewish. They would have been using them to fulfill the commandment given by God after he gave the israelites the ten commandments in the desert, where he said “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. ... Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates”. We repeat these words every time we pray the Shema and the paragraph which follows it- the V’ahavta. In fact these very words are what is found written on the parchment inside every mezuzah.

However, by the time Josephus was recording about mezuzot, Jews lived among non-Jews and marking their homes as Jewish, like in the times of Egypt,  was lkely a statement of faith in God and of their Jewish identity. 

Jewish businesses were also marked in Germany in 1933, and every Jewish home was registered as such by the Nazi regime as a means to clearly identify all the Jews. In one case, marking our homes with blood, or a mezuza as we do nowadays, is considered a powerful choice and a source of pride. In the second case, the marking of our homes by an external group was evil and a source of degradation and humiliation. 

In the anonymous blog “Talking Torah”, the author refers to the difference between identity and identification when talking about this concept.  In Cryptography, identity is defined as the thing or state that remains the same even in different states or environments, whereas identification is the state of being identified by others. 

So identity is what comes from within, and identification comes from outside.


In the case of the Israelites marking their homes, they were stating their identity; however, the Nazis were identifying the Jews from the outside. 

I think the true problem was that they were marking us out, and that rather than a statement of identity coming from within, this was an identification coming from outside. This identification as a Jew was specifically designed to have a bad association. So elements of our identity, independent of their value, can be given a negative value when the identification is done on the outside, similar to the concept of “applying labels to people”. For example, I heard on the news about the mother of an autistic kid that when riding the subway with her son, she would have a paper on her back that said “be patient because my son is autistic”. Many people thought she was singling him out for not being fully capable to fit in with our society. But she was not marking him as something negative though. I imagine that she did not want people to get mad and be intolerant, but people saw that as her attempt at  giving him this label. Equally, there are times when marking ourselves as Jews in public can be seen by different people as different things. Zvika Klein, an Israeli journalist, did an experiment in February of this year, by walking around the streets of Paris wearing a kippa and secretly filming this experience. There is an interesting YouTube video about it, and I invite you all to check it out… of course after Shabbat is over… he was ignored, spat on and called names.  Yes, like the BBC pointed out, he was walking in poor neighbourhoods that were mostly Muslim, so it was not representative of all of Paris. But his actions were seen by some as a provocation, just like the marking of the jewish doorposts with the blood of a sacred animal would be. Personally, I think I am lucky that I live in a country where wearing a kippa is neither an experiment, a provocation or a suicide attempt. 

I have been identified as many things: Canadian, Jew, white boy… But my identity is a mix of so many things:  my grandparents are first generation Mexicans, my dad was born in Israel and my mom was born in Mexico, I am a Texan, an American, a Torontonian and a Canadian, a Jew, a rugby player, a hockey player, a good student, or a problem student... depending on who you ask... Today, through my Bar Mitzvah, I am allowing all of you to identify me as a member of this Jewish community. 

However, as I learned through the preparation for this Bar Mitzvah, the actions I am doing today are not what makes me a member of this community. I could decide not to do a Bar Mitzvah, and I would still remain an adult Jew, because Judaism is part of my identity and I have been 13 years old for a couple of weeks. A 13 year old is considered a full adult member of the Jewish community whether or not he “has” a Bar Mitzvah. So, if doing a Bar Mitzvah does not make one Jewish, what exactly makes one Jewish? 

A Jew is born to Jewish parents or converts to Judaism. A Jew does not have to do a bar-mitzvah ceremony to remain a Jew, does not have to have a mezuzah on his doorpost, or even believe in God. 

My decision to stand here, actively being a part of the community and wearing a tallit in public for the first time, is a way in which I am expressing my identity as a Jew. This expression is coming from within. Being a Jew though, is not an isolated action that depends only on me expressing my identity - it also has to do with the community that recognizes and accepts this expression. And so, I am placing myself publicly as identified from within as a Jew, and identified by my community and my family from without as an adult Jew. 

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Parshat Ki Tisa by Hank KohnMarch 7, 2015

Shabbat Shalom!

 This weeks parsha, Ki Tisa, is the story of the Golden Calf. It opens with G-d giving Moses the Ten Commandments on top of Mount Sinai. The Israelites get impatient when Moses still hasntt come down from the mountain, so they ask Aaron to build them a golden calf to worship. Aaron agrees, and builds a new god for the Israelites. G-d tells Moses of the bad deeds going on below, and decides to kill all of the Israelites. Moses hears this, begs for mercy on behalf of the Israelites, and G-d grants it. When Moses returns from the mountain and sees the calf with his own eyes, he gets so angry that he smashes the two tablets on the ground, and proceeds to annihilate the calf. He burns it, grinds it into powder, mixes it with water, and makes the Israelites drink that water. Moses was not happy.

 I found two central themes in this parsha: trust and forgiveness, which both intertwine with each other well. I also found that materialism is related to the Golden Calf, so Id like to touch on that a bit as well. 

The first question that we need to address in this parsha is: Why did the Israelites build the Golden Calf?


Rabbi Gunther Plaut in his modern commentary argues that the Israelites had many doubts about Moses mysterious connection with an unseen god, especially after Moses vanished. Rabbi Plaut thinks the people felt like they needed a god on earth, not up in the heavens. I have quite a similar interpretation. I think that the people felt the need to build a golden calf because they did not trust a god that they couldnt see. They just werentt able to imagine that G-d had no form, so their solution was to build something that they could see to worship.

G-d also found a solution to this problem: G-d showed the Israelites special things that only G-d can do. Chapter 32, verse 15 of Shemot states that G-d inscribed the letters of the tablets on both sides of the stone so that you could see the words from both sides. No human wouldve been able to do that.

The Midrash tells us that the middle of the letter samech--just like the middle of an o--was magically floating. This was a way for G-d to show the Israelites that the Ten Commandments were actually made by G-d, and that G-d does indeed exist.
        
The theme of trust goes back to Rabbi Plauts interpretation of the episode of the Golden Calf. The Torah states that the Golden Calf was built when the Israelites saw that Moses was late coming down from Mount Sinai. Rabbi Plaut interprets this as them simply not trusting that Moses would return at all. Its like when a baby cries when his mother leaves the room, believing he will never see her again, and that she will never return. The Israelites were still babies in their trust of G-d.

If we take a step back and look at the present day, we see that trust is very important. Im going to use a few ordinary examples to prove this point. Say, for example, I'm a ten-year-old boy and my mom has just left to go to the grocery store, leaving me alone in the house. She told me that shed be back in half an hour, but forty-five minutes have passed and shes still not back. I start to get a little bit worried, but I trust her, and know that she will return. Imagine if people did not have this basic level of trust. Lets say Im going to meet my friend at the coffee shop, but hes late. If I dont trust that hell show up, why should I waste my time waiting for him? Problems of this nature can also arise on larger and larger scales, such as in the international community. It seems to me that many wars of the past wouldnt have happened if countries had simply trusted one another.

Forgiveness is also an important theme in my parsha. Ki Tisa shows what happens when forgiveness is granted, but also what happens when it isnt. Looking at both ends of the spectrum, this parsha really tells us just how important forgiveness is. When G-d told Moses that G-d was going to kill all the Israelites, Moses begged for mercy, and God granted forgiveness. On the other side of the spectrum, when Moses returned from the mountain, he killed 3,000 people for building an idol.

If you think about it, when we forgive others, not only do we make them happy, but we also make ourselves happy. There is scientific evidence that supports this. Everett L. Worthington, Jr., a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, has studied the benefits of forgiveness. He says that people often like to stigmatize their enemies rather than forgive them, because they feel like forgiveness is a sign of submission. Also, people figure that forgiveness doesnt make them happier, so they shouldnt bother doing it, even if the situation really calls for forgiveness. 

Worthington defines forgiveness as not only moving past a negative experience, but also moving towards a more positive one. For example, if a brother and a sister are fighting over a video game and brother snatches it from the sister, the sister would forgive her brother not only by saying, Its okay, but by also resolving to share better next time. Worthington then quotes a study done by Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet, a psychologist at Hope College. She asked test subjects to recall a grudge that they held against a person, and not surprisingly, they began to get stressed and unhappy. When the subjects imagined forgiving this person, they became less stressed. In short, forgiving others makes you happy.

Forgiveness is extremely important in Judaism. Every year on Yom Kippur, we devote an entire day to think about it and how we can ask G-d for forgiveness, and seek and grant forgiveness from and to others. It is important for me personally to do this because it is a chance for me to take the weight of my wrongdoings off of my shoulders. To me, that is the beauty of forgiveness. If you practice it, you can get rid of that extra burden of guilt and focus on other things, with the added benefit of making people feel good!

In my opinion, trust and forgiveness are related. To build a relationship, the first key ingredient is trust. I guarantee that you will not make friends with anyone if one person doesnt trust the other. If you are trying to rebuild a relationship, one person will need to forgive the other, which will lead to you both trusting each other.

There is one question that still challenges me in this parsha. Why would Moses contradict himself by not forgiving the people just after he begged G-d for forgiveness? How can he ASK for forgiveness but not be willing to GIVE it? After thinking long and hard about it, I found an answer that relates to many other different things in this parsha, and in life. People naturally want to see something with their own eyes before they believe it.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that a major reason the Israelites built a golden calf was because they needed a physical form of G-d to see. In my opinion, this is what happened with Moses. When G-d told him of the Israelites wrongdoings on top of Mount Sinai, Moses didnt think that that it would be that bad, but when he returned and actually saw the idol with his own eyes, he was very angry. For example, if somebody tells you that having a baby is a lot of work, you dont realize just how much work it actually is until you experience it yourself. This is different than not trusting the person--because you do trust them--it is just that actually experiencing something is very different from just hearing about it.

The human desire to see a physical form of something as proof is powerful. For whatever reason, people just love things: jewelry, fancy furniture, china; basically anything they can touch. But recent psychological research has shown that people who spend their money on experiences are much happier than those who spend it on things.  Tim Kasser, a psychologist at Knox College, notes that people who have a materialistic desire for items can trigger unhappiness in relationships, poorer moods, and more psychological problems. Although this research is still young, we are starting to discover more and more of the problems associated with materialism.

This is because the anticipation of waiting for an experience triggers a feeling of happiness in our brains, whereas waiting for an item only triggers impatience. Take a moment and think about the anticipation you mightve felt waiting for a trip, and compare that to the anticipation of waiting for your new iPhone or computer to arrive. Those are two different feelings, and I think that the former feels better.

The commentator Rashi points out that the Israelites desired many gods, not just one, which is why they built the golden calf. Rashi writes: They had desires for different gods, to cater to each of their diverse needs. To me, this seems like the Israelites wanted quantity over quality, which we know isnt always best. They wanted more gods, which is directly related to wanting more things, and it clearly didnt make them any happier than they were with just one god. This is a very important lesson to take away from the Torah, as it teaches us that it is better to take quality over quantity, and that materials dont necessarily make us happy.

I personally think that experiences are what Judaism is built around. Take Purim for example. The entire point of the holiday is to have a good time and celebrate the defeat of Haman. There are many other examples of fun holidays like Purim, including but not limited to: Chanukkah, Pesach, and Tu BShevat. And if you think about it, G-d is actually an experience, which is why we are commanded to not build idols, because they turn G-d into an item, just like the Golden Calf.  We cannot touch G-d, we cannot build G-d, because G-d is an experience, and not a thing.

Based on my parsha, there are three things that I would like you to remember when you leave the Shul today.

First, trust each other. Even if it is something as simple as letting your friend use something of yours, trust can really help build relationships. If you trust the person next to you, chances are theyll trust you back, and you might inspire them to trust others as well.

Second, forgive people whove made mistakes. It has been scientifically proven that forgiveness hold benefits for the person doing the forgiving, and the person being forgiven. Dont see forgiveness as a sign of submission or weakness. You can be better than that and give people a second chance to succeed.

Third, its the experiences in our lives that count; not the items. The episode of the Golden Calf really teaches us that Judaism--and life--is about the experiences and not the material objects.

If you go out and apply these three things into the world, you can really help to make it a better place.


            Shabbat Shalom.

Parshat Terumah by Ezri WymanFebruary 21, 2015

Shabbat shalom.  My portion is Parashat Terumah. In parashat Terumah God gives instructions to the Israelites in the desert to build the mishkan or the tabernacle. There are more verses devoted to the building of the tabernacle than to the creation of the world! Parashat Terumah talks about everything from materials to dimensions to how many of what should go where.

At the time when Terumah is set, the Israelites have just escaped from Egypt and are becoming a free people. This brings up a dilemma; is working and building under god any better than working and building under pharaoh or a task master?  

The Hebrew word avad (ayin, vet, daled) is the root of the word slave avadim, but also the roots of the Hebrew word for worship and work avodah. Where do you draw the line between slavery, work and worship?  Rabbi Elyse Goldstein comes to the rescue here with the comment that it is about whether it elevates or diminishes you. When the Israelites where slaves in Egypt, they were forced to work and treated as subhuman. That diminished them. In their service to god, they were told to work to build a place for them to connect to god and to each other. That elevated them. A place to connect and ask for help was much more that pharaoh ever gave them.

Zahava Lambert (a family friend and lecturer on Judaica) commented in discussion with me that God asking for the mishkan to be built was because the golden calf was proof that the Israelites needed to build—for all those years in Egypt, the people were used to building for those above them, and now that they were out of Egypt, they felt the need to do the same. Building cities for Pharoah, then building the Golden Calf, then building the Mishkan! They also needed something to look at in order to feel comfortable worshiping.  In Egypt, all the people who worshipped had idols to look at, so the Jews were used to a system of belief that involved a physical object. 

In my opinion, we don’t build a mishkan anymore because we’ve eased out of needing to build in order to worship. We haven’t quite eased out of the need to have a physical object, because we use the Torah as a focal point but it has not become our Golden Calf. We still build shuls but they’re not as precisely built as the mishkan. That’s because we should be working towards building stronger communities as opposed to nicer buildings.

The torah scholar Nahmanides said that “The redemption and the giving of the Torah were designed to return us to this level of direct personal connection with God” so he suggests that the torah is our connection to god. He goes on to say that while we were in Egypt we lost our connection and the purpose of the mishkan is to give it back. I disagree for several reasons. One, I don’t think that our relationship with god or Judaism is reliant on a mishkan. Case in point; we don’t have a mishkan but we still have Judaism. Reason two, the Jews made it out of Egypt together. They couldn’t have lost their connection with an idea of god because they all identified as Jews and their connection to the Jewish God was what made them a part of the Jewish people.

The truth is we have no way to know exactly what happened. Unlike the temples in Jerusalem there is no archeological evidence that the mishkan in the dessert ever existed. I don’t think that it’s important whether or not the mishkan was ever built because it wasn’t a good tool to build a society. There was a religious hierarchy where the high priests were taken care of and had power while everyone else needed to look after themselves, and in a modern Jewish community we don’t have that.

It makes sense now that we don’t worship the way that we did at the mishkan (if there was one). For one thing, all the animal parts might get messy and for another, that kind of worship wasn’t a good way to build a strong, welcoming community.

At City Shul we don’t just build for God. We build a community in which everyone is safe and welcomed. There isn’t the same kind of control over people through religion that there was at the mishkan. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein comments that having a welcoming community makes it easier to feel God, and I think that praying to God makes it easier to feel community.  At City Shul, the physical space and the work that went into it aren’t that important compared to the community that we build. 

Writing about the half-shekel tax put upon the people to build the mishkan, Rabbi Jay Kelman of Torah in Motion here in Toronto says the following in his own words: “One cannot be forced to feel the presence of G-d, or to develop a relationship with Him. But we can force all to participate in the running of the community.” I don’t like the word force, even though he is only referring to taxation here (which you can force people to participate in) but it is true that people can participate in the community regardless of their belief, disbelief, or doubts about God.

In the last line of the parashah, god tells the Israelites “build me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them.” This line made me think that our concept and image of the mishkan is flawed. I’m suggesting that the mishkan is not a place to be built with stone and wood and cloth, but a place to be made within ourselves, or a state of mind.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel—the Kotzker Rebbe— comments that “God dwells wherever we let god in”. This view helps illustrate my point in talking about the mishkan not being a physical place. If God is wherever we let god in then a logical conclusion is that if we let god in we can connect with god wherever we are.

Malbim, a nineteenth–century European Torah commentator and Rabbi, suggests that "each one of us needs to build God a Tabernacle in the recesses of our hearts, by preparing oneself to become a Sanctuary for God and a place for the dwelling of God's glory." 

There is a gospel song that also illustrates this point also:

Lord prepare me, to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true and with thanksgiving, I'll be a living, sanctuary, oh for you.

Interestingly, there is a synagogue in New York that has taken the traditional gospel tune of these lines and sung our Torah line in Hebrew to it:

בתיכם ושכנתי מקדש לי ועשו

Therefore, what we need is instructions for how to connect to god and to each other, instead of how many cubits a wall should be.

The idea of each person being able to make themselves holy and connect to God without a physical place gives more power to the people, and takes away the idea of the high priests being chums with God while everyone else watched from the bleachers.  

In every religion there is a place or thing that represents the deity. Christians have cathedrals, Catholics have the cross as a symbol, in Hindu there are thousands of gods and each has a statue. In Judaism we had the mishkan because as humans it’s easier for us to believe in something bigger than ourselves (be that god, or the power of community) if we can say “that is where my god lives, that’s my mishkan.”

But today, if we create a place in ourselves made up of positive thoughts and feelings, then we can cultivate the sense of something greater that we can believe in.

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild, a British Reform Rabbi, writes: “There is a connection between our sacred space and our community – a connection so deep and intense that we can create one by creating the other.” 

A sacred community is built when every person carries an inner mishkan and that becomes the glue that binds us together.

 

Parshat Mikeitz by Adam SteinDecember 20, 2015

Shabbat shalom  

My Torah portion parashat Mikeitz begins with Joseph being brought to the Pharaoh from prison by the Egyptians.  Joseph was left in the desert by his brothers, as they were angry with Joseph, who had dreamt that he would be their ruler one day.   

The Pharaoh needed help with interpreting his dreams.  One dream was of 7healthy cows being devoured by 7 weak cows.  A second dream was 7 healthy ears of grain being swallowed by 7 shriveled ears of grain.

None of the pharaoh’s scholars could interpret the dreams.  But his wine steward remembered that the prisoner Joseph had a gift for dream interpretation. Joseph interprets Pharaoh's dream that there will be 7 years of plenty and then 7 years of famine throughout Egypt.  Joseph suggests how to save food to prepare for the famine. 

I feel there are three major themes that my parsha is trying to teach us. 

The first theme is the importance of listening. Joseph was able to interpretthe pharoah’s dreams because he was an excellent listener. 

Scholars, including the 19th century German philosopher Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, discuss the importance of listening and explains that it all depends on listening to the story correctly. If ten people listen to a speech or a story, everyone will hear it differently. The midrash states that God gave us 2 ears and 1 tongue, meaning we should listen twice as much as wespeak.

To interpret someone else’s dream, one must be able to think outside the box, understanding that life is complex and unfolds in many ways.  Similarly,a good listener must be patient and allow all information to be presented before giving an opinion.

It seems to me that many problems in the world would improve if people listened more.  Right now in the Middle East, the Palestinians and Israelisare trying to make peace, but it seems that both sides are doing a lot of talking and not enough listening to each other.  In order to resolve differences, we must first listen to the other side even if we disagree with it.

The Torah portion continues with Joseph, now an important advisor to thepharaoh, being addressed by his brothers who do not recognize him.  The brothers have come asking for food, as Joseph was indeed right about the 7years of plenty and the 7 years of famine.   Joseph wants to know if his brothers can be trusted, so he tests them, asking if there are other brothers left back home. The Brothers say yes, and Joseph demands they bring the youngest brother Benjamin to him before he will relinquish any food. 

A second theme in this parashah, then, is about making a choice between revenge and caring.  Joseph had to decide, as his brothers stand right in front of him,  whether to take revenge on his brothers or move on. One scholar, Don Isaac Abravanel, a 16th century Sephardic commentator, asks why Joseph took revenge, bearing a grudge against his brothers.  Josephwas a powerful leader in Egypt and needed nothing, whereas his brothers were begging for food. 

Another commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, believes Joseph wasnot taking revenge, but instead testing his brothers, after all they had done to him. Rabbi Hirsch thinks Joseph’s actions were to see if his brothers could be trusted.  He thinks Joseph’s actions were out of wisdom, not revenge.  

Similarly, Rabbi Levi YitzHak,  a chasidic commentator teaches that despite the cruel treatment by his brothers, leaving him in a desert, Joseph made it appear that his brothers were simply bowing to a king, sparing them the pain of humiliation. What Rabbi Yitzchak is teaching us, is not how we should act ourselves, but rather how we should interpret other's actions towards us in a positive way even if they are negative.

Revenge and forgiveness are important themes in everday life. On my hockey team last year one of our players got hit in the head by a player on another team. My coach could have said go out and hit back, but instead, he told us not to hit back but to play better.  This makes sense to me.  Instead of creating another negative action, turn it around into something positive and beneficial to others. 

The parsha continues with the brothers asking their father Jacob to allow Benjamin to return to Egypt with them as requested by Joseph.  Jacob initially refuses because he does not want another of his son’s to die.  As the famine worsens he realizes he must send Benyamin or they will all starve.  

When the brothers arrive, they are treated to a big banquet, and then aresent back to Canaan with food. Joseph secretly puts a wine glass inBenyamin’s saddlebag.  The brothers are arrested for stealing, but Joseph says he will keep only Benyamin his true brother, as his slave. The parsha ends on this “cliff-hanger!”

The third theme then, revolves around taking decisive action at the right time, especially when it is between death and survival.

An example of this decisive action occurred when Jacob changed his mind and allowed Benyamin to be taken to Egypt.  In verse 14, chapter 43, Jacob says, I have been bereaved, I will be bereaved again.    In Hebrew it is the same verb twice:  shacholty shacholty. Jacob was bereaved when he lost Joseph and he knows he will be bereaved again to lose his youngest son Benjamin.  However, Jacob knows he must take action to provide food for his family or they will starve.  

Another example of the importance of taking action occurs when Jacob realizes that there was grain for sale in Egypt. Jacob said to his sons, LamaTitra –u, which translates as:  “Why are you staring at each other?”

These are words I often hear my mother or father saying to me, “Don’t just sit there, get up and help!!!” 

The 15th century Italian Rabbi S'forno, interprets lama titra-u as "why are you looking at each other?"  S’forno is picking up on a basic human tendency to ignore or deny problems, hoping that someone else will take care of it for them. 

S'forno's interpretation makes the most sense, writes Rabbi Neal Loevinger,a modern 21st century Rabbi, because of all the emotional dynamics in this situation: there is a famine which didn't happen suddenly but slowly built up over time, thus allowing each person to hope that somebody else was going to address the problem.  

It’s natural to sit and stare at others hoping they will take the lead. Once someone acts, others follow because they have a role model to follow.

In conclusion, the story of Joseph and his brothers we read today teaches usimportant lessons on how to become a better person. 

The first lesson is about listening: to our brothers and sisters, and yes, even our parents. It only takes a moment to really stop and listen, yet listeningcan change how you react to a situation. 

The second lesson is about caring. Forgive those who have acted cruelly towards you. Kindness brings more kindness. 

And third, in times of crisis, take action and resolve a problem. Don’t sit around waiting for someone else to do it first. 

Through these three lessons we can see how it is possible to become a better person and by extension, make a better world around us. 

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Parshat Noach by Jack MorrowNovember 11, 2014

Shabbat Shalom.

My Bar Mitzvah falls on what is referred to as Rosh Chodesh – the “head” – or start of a new month.

On Rosh Chodesh we read two portions from the Torah – a special Rosh Chodesh portion AND the portion of the Torah closest to my birthday, which is Noach.  So, we will be lucky enough to hear both.  I am delivering my D’var Torah on the parsha, Noach.  As many of you know, my name is Jack Noah and so it seemed fitting to me to get to study and read this parsha and share some thoughts with you about its meaning and significance.

The main character in the parsha is a man called Noach, or Noah in English.  The story of Noah’s Ark is a tale that we all learned as little kids in Hebrew school. As a kid, it’s fun to learn about a man, a boat and a bunch of animals.  When I was little, my Auntie Andrea gave me a stuffed ark filled with toy animals, Noah, and his family. I played with this toy, innocently creating all kinds of scenes in my basement playroom.  Little did I know at the time what this story really was about (or that I might one day get up in front of my shul and talk about it). 

As the parsha begins, we learn that G-d saw Noah as a righteous man, blameless in his time.  Noah walked with G-d.  We’re also told that the earth had become corrupt and was filled with “lawlessness”.  It sounds like a pretty bad situation for the time.  So  G-d planned to introduce a flood to destroy everything.  But, God also entered into a covenant with Noah, and instructed Noah to build an ark to house his family and two of every animal species – male and female.  G-d gave specific instructions to Noah for the size of the ark, its measurements, in cubits, and design of its opening. 

Noah was told by G-d that his family and the animals would be spared from the destruction that would come.  

G-d made a decision – the world is evil and corrupt, saying “I am going wipe it out but I do need to keep some people and animals alive and re-start the earth from scratch using these people and animals.” Essentially, G-d was hitting the “re-start” button and Noah, his family and all the animals were the link to a new beginning.

Noah listened to G-d – building the Ark in accordance with G-d’s instructions.  The midrash says he took 120 years to build the Ark, year after year labouring to fulfill God’s word.  No one can say that the people in Noah’s community didn’t have ample warning about the impending doom.  As Noah worked away on the Ark, he let people know that the end was near, that destruction was soon to come. 

And so it did.  A huge prolonged storm arrived.  And, as the story goes, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. The earth was covered in water and life on earth was wiped out, except for Noah and the passengers on his Ark. 

While studying this parsha I found three parts really interesting.  

First, how could the people of the world have become so badly behaved that G-d regretted his creation of the earth - wanting to wipe it out and all the life he had created?  The Torah says G-d regretted creating the world.  Atara Lindenbaum Bressman from Matan, The Women’s Institute for Torah Studies in Jerusalem, addresses this very question in a recent essay. She says “The language the Torah uses to describe God’s regret is quite striking.”  She points out that when taking a broader look at Jewish Biblical History, there is a pattern of G-d “regretting” that is revealed.  In this case of Noach, this commentary discusses the concept of “regret” as defined as to “lose hope”.  This loss of hope is not final.  To regret is the “beginning” of the loss of hope.  Ms. Bressman seems to feel that G-d is willing to redo his entire Creation.  While on the other hand, Noach seems to be able to change G-ds initial regret.  

G-d’s regret and his apparent intention to blot out humanity also struck me after watching the movie Noah.   Faced with fulfilling G-d’s command to eliminate evil and begin life afresh, in the movie, Noah interprets G-d’s instructions narrowly.  Noah understands that his family was selected to be the last of human life on Earth.  This interpretation is quite different from the more traditional interpretations of G-d’s covenant with Noah.  In the movie, Noah gathers his family and explains that his sons are to bury himself and his wife, and his last surviving son is to die alone.  This will ensure that human life – the cause of evil on Earth – will be blotted out forever.  However, his plans are foiled when his eldest son’s wife miraculously conceives a child despite having been barren.  To fulfil G-d’s commandment, Noah states that he will kill the baby if it is a girl to ensure that new human life cannot be created.  But, when he comes face to face with his new born twin granddaughters he is overcome by love. He is unable to carry out what he believes is G-d’s will – to kill the babies.  Noah feels great sadness – in his mind, he has failed to carry out G-d’s wishes and he has, at the same time, been estranged from his family.  In the end though, through the thoughtful words of his wife, Noah learns to accept that it was G-d’s intention to leave it up to Noah to determine the fate of mankind.  Yes, G-d had “regret” but he also had “hope”. In the movie, Noah represented hope for a new beginning by choosing life for his new granddaughters.  

Second, why was Noah chosen to be spared and selected to carry out G-d’s plan?  Resh Lakish, one of the great Rabbis in the Talmud, suggests that Noah, who was considered to be a righteous man, was viewed with special honour, quote: “for nothing is more difficult than to be honest peaceful and loving, when deceit, violence and hatred are the accepted patterns of society.”  Therefore, for his time, it seems Noah was a good choice to be trusted to follow God’s instructions, deliver his message, educate people and hopefully change the future of the world as it was known at the time.  That’s a lot of pressure to put on one person’s shoulders!  

Third, why 120 years of building the ark? That strikes me as a very long time.  It is said that 120 years was long enough for people to take heed of Noah’s mission for G-d, and the earth’s impending doom, and maybe even change their ways. Noah had hoped, it is said, that people would change and become more conscious and righteous, perhaps causing G-d to reconsider his plan for earth.   Also, you need lots of mature trees to build an Ark.  The Midrash states that for the 120 years prior to the flood, Noah planted trees.  Noah used the wood from the trees he planted to build the Ark.  

While reviewing the more modern day commentaries on this parsha, I came upon much written by Rabbi Gunther Plaut, one of the greatest thinkers of the Reform movement of the 20th century.  

Rabbi Plaut states that researchers and historians treat the story of Noah’s Ark as a piece of history, an event that actually occurred.  I found that statement puzzling when I first started my research.  Wasn’t there really a great flood and an Ark?  That’s what I learned as a kid.  But, Rabbi Plaut states that an Ark was never actually built, which is why no one will ever find remnants of it.  What was the basis for Rabbi Plaut’s view?  From Rabbi Plaut’s perspective, one shared by many, chapters 6 to 8 of Genesis represent a religious metaphor in the form of a “morality tale” intended to teach us important lessons.  According to Rabbi Plaut, the true aim of the authors of this part of the Torah is to warn humans of every generation of what could happen to them if they too, allow “lawlessness or violence” to become a way of life.  

The story of Noah ends with a rainbow in the sky.  We all think of rainbows as colourful, dramatic, beautiful and happy.   Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a modern Orthodox Rabbi in Israel, has an interesting interpretation of the Rainbow – ancient cultures fought their wars with bows and arrows.  When one side surrendered, pursuing peace instead of war, they would express this by holding up an inverted bow that the enemy could see.  Here, G-d places an inverted bow in the heavens as a sign that he is no longer warring against humanity.

But, despite that comfort, does that mean that ultimately, we’re on our own, that G-d isn’t at our side to bail us out when violence begins to overtake us?  Are we left with the disturbing possibility that while the story of Noah is instructive, we’re on our own to live in peace with our neighbours and in harmony with our environment and that if we fail to do so, it’s on us?   

We live in an age of technology – everything is available to us at the push of a button – but, with technology have we lost the meaning of direct human connection?  We have huge cities, and new cities bursting from the ground everyday, powered by technology and industry.  We have billions of cars powered by carbon burning fossil fuels. But, at what cost – to the quality of the air we breathe, the soil we rely on for the food we grow, the seas we look to for the fish we eat?  Have we lost our way just as people had in the time of Noah?  

A day doesn’t go by where we don’t have warning messages in the newspaper, online, and at school about the dangers to the environment and our role in creating these problems.  Signs of “global warming” are everywhere – unpredictable and violent weather patterns world-wide (including Tsunamis), melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels, and harm to our wildlife and agriculture.  Are we are living in the midst of our own slow, creeping flood?  Are we re-living the story of Noah right now? Are we receiving warnings from G-d that we must change our ways?  And do we have 120 years of warning?  If that’s a symbol of having a long time to prepare, do we still have enough time?

Whether you see the story of a Noah as a historical event or a morality tale, the message in the parsha is clear.  We’re essentially on our own.  It’s up to us to turn things around.  G-d won’t be bailing us out any time soon.     

I believe that the goal of the story of Noah was to remind us that we areresponsible for looking after our earth, for ensuring that we treat each other and our environment with respect and kindness.

Others have referenced the story of Noah as a symbol for the need for change in our relationship to the environment.  And the Ark is a good symbol for that.

The environmental group, Greenpeace, is building a replica of the Ark on Mount Ararat, the mountain that Noah’s Ark was thought to have landed on to remind people that we need to change our ways.  Just last month, there was a huge demonstration and march in New York.  People gathered from all over in an effort to get the world leaders to turn their attention onto the issue of Climate Change.  Right in the centre of this march was a huge replica of an ark.  Jewish Rabbis, Christian ministers and Muslim imams stood on the ark, symbolizing the need for all religions to heed the story of Noah together, as a group! 

These Ark replicas are being used at various times, to suggest that we are reliving the story of Noah in our time.

In researching and preparing my D’var Torah, I came across a D’Var Torah written by Shimshon Stüart Siegel, titled Parshat Noach: A Paradigm for Environmental Consciousness.   Siegel states that “[a]lthough environmental issues are not directly expressed in the parsha, when we take a deeper look at Noach, seeing him through the eyes of the Midrashim and various rabbinic commentaries, we can discover a portrait of a man who spent his life innovating a lifestyle of environmental harmony and Devine awareness.”  Siegel goes on to state that “[e]vironmental awareness is an aspect of the mitzvah known as Bal Tashchit - Do Not Destroy.  Noach, the one man who had not corrupted (hishchit) the world, became the pioneer of Bal Tashchit in the world when he built the ark, the vessel that would preserve the planet’s animal life in the face of the total destruction of the environment.”  

One of the lessons that Siegel took from the story of Noah is the idea of seeing the earth as a lifeboat (or Ark) that we all share.  While on the Ark, Noah and his crew maintained a sort of BioDome, struggling to maintain a level of ecological balance under the most challenging circumstances to ensure that all animal life could thrive and survive.  We have the same challenge and opportunity on the “lifeboat of earth.”  Siegel comments that by composting food waste we reduce landfill and create rich soil for growing vegetables.  Using public transit in urban areas reduces pollution, cuts down on frustrating traffic and provides us with more time to relax, contributing to reduced stress.  It also provides us all with cleaner air to breathe!  And, of course, riding a bike to work (and school!) accomplishes all of these things plus improving our health.  Siegel states that, like Noah, we too must “continue to strive for a better tomorrow, educate others about environmental issues, and believe that our efforts, on every level, can make a difference.”

I certainly embrace Siegel’s vision!  The next time I step out after a rainstorm and see a rainbow in the sky, I will remember G-d’s promise to Noah, and know that we have the power and responsibility to make this earth a better healthier place

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Parshat Korach by Izzy AdlerJune 21, 2014

My Torah portion today, Korach, is about a rebel who stands up against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, and the consequences of his actions.  Along with 250 leaders of the community, Korach accuses Moses and Aaron of thinking they are holier than everyone else. Korach also wants to be made a high priest, a position that he is entitled to due to his lineage as a Levite.  Moses asks the rebels to bring a sacrifice to the sanctuary the following day in order for God to decide if their claim has any merit to it.  When they bring the sacrifice Korach and all his followers are brutally killed as the earth opens up and swallows some while others are killed by fire or plague. The rest of the community then accuses Moses and Aaron of bringing death upon their people and God responds by killing more Israelites. Moses orders Aaron to make a sacrifice to God in order to stop the killing.

Most commentators I researched put Korach’s rebellion in a bad light. Maimonides, a famous 12th century commentator, points out that Korach purposely picked the time right after scouts came back from Israel with mixed reports, so that many people were already starting to doubt Moses and Aaron’s leadership based on the spies’ reports. This shows that Korach was a calculating individual who waited for the perfect opportunity to take action. 

Rashi, an 11th century French commentator, agrees with Maimonides for the most part. Where he differs is that he credits Korach’s intelligence. Rashi explains that most people who are motivated by jealousy often act recklessly but Korach waited a long time for the perfect opportunity to speak out against Moses and Aaron.

Two contemporary views reinforce this negative perception of Korach.  Rabbi Dan Zemel, a 20th century American commentator said, “Korach is a rebel without a cause” meaning that Korach rebelled without any good reason.  As I don’t entirely agree with this perspective, I will return to it later. 

Nehama Leibowits, a 20th century female commentator explained, “ While Korach advocates the holiness of each person he doesn’t take the next step by calling for a vote or do anything close to democracy. Therefore Korach and the followers deserve their punishment because all their motives were self-serving and meant to splinter and divide the Jewish people”.  In other words, Korach’s actions do not match his words as he claims that he’s interested in everyone’s human rights, but does not follow up by empowering the people.  In reality, he is just hungry for power to further his own interests.

My personal opinion is slightly different.  It is impossible to know what Korach’s true motives were.  As Rabbi Plaut, a leading figure in modern Reform Judaism stated, “Superficially, Korach’s act may appear to be the usual attempt by someone out of power to displace the incumbent rulers.  But the Bible’s very silence about his motives directs our attention away from Korach’s true intention to his stated argument ” regarding the inequality between the leadership and the rest of the Jewish people.  This focus seems like a legitimate concern so that we never truly know if Korach is looking out purely for his own self-interest or that of his people.

I think Korach had good reason to be angry that he didn’t receive the role of high priest that he was next in line for, but what I have difficulty with is the way he went about attempting to achieve his goal.  By going around to various groups of Israelites and offering them slightly different stories of Moses’s poor leadership, he used persuasive language to incite them.  It is also interesting to note that his 250 followers were also Levites who already had more power in the community.   If Korach was really interested in serving the greater good, he could have gone to Moses directly in a respectful manner. 

An example of this can be seen by the 5 daughters of Zelophehad who approached Moses politely requesting their father’s land inheritance even though as women they were not legally entitled to it.  In contrast to Korach’s style, the daughters’ approach resulted in them getting what they asked for.  So while I don’t necessarily have issue with Korach’s message, I find his method problematic. 

This brings me to the crux of my d’var Torah. To begin with let’s define the word ‘rebel’.  According to the Oxford dictionary “a rebel is a person who resists authority, control or convention”.  The Urban Dictionary offers this perspective – “A rebel is a person who stands up for their own personal opinions despite what anyone else says.”  There is no doubt according to these definitions that Korach was a rebel as he resisted authority and stood up for his own personal opinion.  But questioning is encouraged in Judaism, so why did Korach face such a harsh punishment?

In doing my research, I thought a lot about the qualities that make an ethical and successful rebellion and I looked to history for answers.  The most important criteria is to be a voice for the people, meaning your rebellion can’t be self-serving.  It must be for the greater good in order to achieve positive change. You must identify the issue that you disagree with and in doing so educate the people so they understand the problems and know where you are coming from with your rebellion. Evaluate the risk factor and see if the potential gains outweigh the danger. You need to have a clear vision of what you are looking to change and how the world will be better if you accomplish your goal. Finally, if your rebellion is successful you must not let the power go to your head, and still remain focused on your initial vision.

Throughout history people have always been fighting for human rights.  Martin Luther King offers a modern example of an ethical rebellion. For over 200 years Blacks in America suffered under slavery. In the 1960’s Martin Luther King and his army of civil rights activists fought against the racist laws that discriminated against Blacks in the American South. These laws made it hard or impossible for Blacks to get jobs, vote, become educated or even use the same washrooms as white people. Although their white oppressors were ruthless and abusive, Martin Luther King was still able to lead a rebellion based on non-violent protest.  An example of this was when his followers including women and children marched into Birmingham, Alabama knowing that they would be attacked by police with dogs and clubs yet not one member of King’s supporters fought back. 

According to the criteria I outlined earlier Martin Luther King’s rebellion was an ethical one.  He was a voice for the people and worked to achieve positive change in the world.  He clearly identified the issues and educated people to understand his agenda.  King opted for non-violent protest in order to minimize risk factors and to achieve his goal in an ethical way. When the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King’s ‘dream’ became a reality.

16 year-old Malala Yousafzai provides another example of a leader of an ethical rebellion.  Born and raised in Pakistan, Malala with the help of her father, fought for girls’ rights to get an education.  Even when the Taliban were closing down schools, Malala continued to speak out in support of education for girls.  Though she was shot in the head and almost killed by the Taliban, she continues to be a strong advocate for her cause and a global symbol of peaceful protest.  Her efforts have been recognized as she was the youngest person ever to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Malala’s actions also fit all of my criteria as she is a voice for the people, specifically girls who aren’t allowed to go to school.  Through writing and public speaking, she has brought this issue to a global stage.  What I find most impressive is the risk factor that was involved.  In her autobiography, I Am Malala, she wrote about how she was aware of the risk involved by openly disagreeing with the Taliban, yet she continued with her campaign.  Malala prepared what she would say if she was attacked by a terrorist, “OK, shoot me, but first listen to me.  What you are doing is wrong.  I am not against you personally, I just want every girl to go to school.”  Malala was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, her own life, in order to create positive change in the world.

Writing my diver Torah and exploring different types of rebellions lead me to the recent hot doc’s festival in Toronto to watch a film called “Everyday Rebellions” by the Iranian born director, Arman T. Rishi.  This documentary looked at creative forms of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience around the world.  The message was that rebellion is necessary in order to speak out against injustice, especially for those who cannot, and that peaceful protests are ultimately a more effective way to create change rather than resorting to violence.   

The peaceful protest movement is gaining momentum around the world such as Foemen, a group of female activists who use their bodies to display messages in support of women’s rights.  Another example is the Occupy movement, which speaks out against the great gap between the rich and the poor.  

Two parts of the film stood out to me, one being an analogy that if you want to fight Mike Tyson, beat him in a game of Chess rather than in a boxing ring.  This shows that you can’t match firepower with greater firepower; rather you need to find creative alternatives.  I was also struck by a march in which the protesters dressed up as clowns and instead of fighting the armed police officers, they gave them hugs.  This was an effective strategy as it disarmed the police officer’s power; it was difficult to arrest hugging clowns.

The message I want to leave you with is quite simple.  Rebellion is necessary in order to create positive change in the world and it is crucial to speak out when you see injustices happening, however the manner in which you approach your rebellion is equally as important as the issue at hand.  Had Karachi adopted a more ethical approach, perhaps he could have attained his goal rather than encountering a tragic death.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

Naso by Jake PiafskyMay 31, 2014

This week's reading, Naso, is the longest single portion in the Torah, containing 176 verses. Lucky me!

 Here is what it says in a nutshell:

It starts with a description of a census of the Gershonites, Merarites, and Koathites between the ages of thirty and fifty. These are the Levite families who had priestly duties. Their duties are described in chapter 4:verses 21-49.
•    God speaks to Moses about what to do with ritually unclean people, repentant individuals, and those who are suspected of adultery. 
•    God explains the obligations of a Nazirite vow. They include abstaining from alcohol and not cutting your hair.  More about this later. 
•    God tells Moses how to teach Aaron and his sons the Priestly Blessing. 
•    Moses dedicates the Sanctuary to worship, and the tribal chieftains bring offerings. 
•    Moses then speaks with God inside the Tent of Meeting which was part of the portable dwelling place for the divine presence from the time of the Exodus from Egypt through the conquering of the land of  Canaan. 

In my D’var Torah I am going to talk a bit about the vow of the Nazirite.

The Nazirite vow is a vow of abstinence for God. If a man or woman decides to take the vow he or she may not
•    drink wine or any other drink or food that comes from grapes.
•    cut their hair. 
•    come in contact with a dead body. 
•    Or become ritually impure during the vow
•    The vow is usually time limited but for at least 30 days.. 

There are no Nazirites today, as this practice was abolished after the destruction of the Second Temple. However looking at the ancient laws of a Nazirite still raises some interesting questions.

In an article “Traditional Judaism: Fundamentalistic or Ascetic?” Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald, who is a well known modern orthodox rabbi, tells us that :
the Bible mentions two Nazirites, Samuel and Samson. One, Samuel, was described in a very positive way. The other one, Samson, was not. Rabbi Buchwald says that this in itself should serve as a hint to us about the Torah’s ambivalence towards the Nazirite. Is the Nazirite regarded as a sinner or a saint, evil or righteous?”

In other words, does the Jewish tradition encourage us to retreat from the world and behave like a monk or does it encourage us to take part in the world and enjoy what it offers?

Commentators disagree on the role of the Nazirite in Jewish tradition. The Talmud presents varying and often contradictory views on the subject. According to Rashi the word nazir comes from the root meaning: to separate oneself and refers to the students of the Torah who keep themselves separate from the ways of the common people. In this understanding, the Nazirite is very much like a Jewish monk.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, a Rabbi from the 18th century describes Nazirites as an ideal community that holds itself aloof from the rest of society and ignores all the pleasures of life. He concludes that the Nazirites are sources of inspiration because they do more than the laws of the Torah require. Other commentators disagree finding the Nazirites life of abstention nothing less then sinful. Rabbi Eleazer HaKapper who lived during the second century held that by denying the enjoyments of life, the Nazirties were sinners. Judaism never commands us to live a life without enjoyment.

The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides warned against abstaining from all forms of bodily pleasure. He said that if people foolishly decide to separate themselves from others, and abstain from eating meat, drinking wine, marrying, living in comfortable homes, or wearing fine clothing, they should be told they are choosing an evil path. According to Maimonides, our tradition forbids us from denying to ourselves any of the joys permitted by the Torah.

The ambivalence towards the nazir is seen in the story of Samson whose birth is mentioned in my Haftarah portion. He was the most famous Nazirite in the Bible. He was also someone who partied too much and completely lacked self control. This lack of self control led to his personal downfall and brought military defeat to the people of Israel who he was tasked to defend.

Besides Isaac Samson is the only biblical character who's birth is foretold by an angel. The angel appears before Samson’s mother to tell her that she would soon have a son and that she and her husband should raise the boy as a Nazir. The angel tells Samson’s mother that if he follow the rules of a Nazir, he will be blessed with strength and protect Israel from the Philistines. His story doesn't say much about him being a protector of Israel. Instead it describes his romantic experiences with Philistine women and his hatred of Philistine men (he kills a fair amount of them). In the stories, he has no control over his fierce temper and has no problem attacking and killing innocent people. In one case, his fellow Israelites surrender him to the Philistines. He agrees to go but soon rips the ropes off his hands, and kills one thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey. In the end, he was betrayed by his last wife, Delilah.

The Philistines offer Delilah a large reward if she can find out and tell them the source of Samson’s strength. She tries a number of times and he keeps not telling her the truth. Finally, he tells her the truth that as a Nazirite, his hair has never been cut and if it where cut, his strength would be gone. Delilah cuts his hair off while he is asleep. The Philistines grab him and gouge his eyes out and set him to work grinding grain in prison. They then bring him out to their temple in chains and bind him to two pillars. They foolishly have not cut his hair while he was in prison. The spirit of god descends upon him and he pulls down the two pillars therefore destroying the temple and killing thousands of Philistines.

What, if anything, can we learn from Samson’s twisted life?

Here was someone who was given a great gift – enormous strength and a great responsibility – to defend the Jewish people from their most dangerous enemy – the Philistines – and he ended up wasting his gift, and his life. Instead of concentrating on defending Israel he played around with women, randomly killed people out of spite and was generally pretty wild. In other words, to paraphrase great Jewish philosopher Stan Lee (who also happens to be a comic book writer): He had great power but blew his responsibility.

He ended up being betrayed by Delilah his Philistine wife who used him to get rich on reward money, got his eyes poked out and  he pulled down a Philistine temple in fit of revenge.

Maybe it tells us something about people who carry the trappings of holiness but whose actions tell us something else. Sometimes, merely following the rules and looking holy isn’t the same as acting holy. Being a good person goes beneath your appearance. He had the trappings of a Nazir. His strength came from his hair which he never cut because he was a Nazir. It was his hair that got him into trouble.

On the other hand unlike most Nazirites who take on its obligations voluntarily and for a limited period of time Samson was born a Nazir and was supposed to remain one for life. For him it was not a choice. Samson was set apart from birth but could not or chose not to live the life imposed on him.

I think there are two lessons here:
If you impose onerous obligations on people without their agreement don’t be surprised if they don’t live up to them. And if you find yourself given a gift don’t squander it.

Ve’ahavta I found these messages to be especially relevant when for my tzedacka project I volunteered to go on the Ve’ahavta van. For those of you who don’t know what Ve’ahavta is, it is a Jewish outreach program to the homeless. I spent an afternoon handing out food and clothing to homeless people. Many of the people I saw were people who had experienced much pain in their lives and who's worlds had come crashing in on them. These people were a bit like like Nazirites in the sense that they were separated from society, although not voluntarily. And not always for a specific period of time, like the Nazirites. I was glad to be able to spend time with them helping to rebuild their world even in a small way.

In closing, my parsha suggest that Life is filled with many opportunities and also unfortunate events. It is important to use every resource you have to make yours and everyone else's life better. Life is short so don’t waste it. Don’t squander your God given gifts. If you do your world, like Samson’s, can literally come crashing down on you.

 

Parshat Kedoshim by Jack GoldbergApril 26, 2014

Shabbat Shalom.

The parsha I’m reading today is called Kedoshim. In Kedoshim G-d is talking to Moses. G-d gives Moses a list explaining how to be holy.  He commands Moses to share it with the Israelite community.  Here are some of the examples from the list that G-d gave to Moses:

·       To keep the Sabbath, 
·       Not to pray to idols, 
·       To revere your mother and father, 
·       To judge fairly 
·       Not to insult the deaf.
·       Some of these items are ritual acts like keeping the Sabbath, keeping              kosher and not praying to idols.
·       Some of these items I would consider moral like respecting your parents,          not stealing and judging people fairly.
·       There are also some items that I wouldn’t put into either group and                  some that I just don’t agree with like prohibiting same sex relations.

This Torah portion made me ask a few questions:

First, What does it mean to be “holy?”
Second, “Why is it even important to try to be holy?”
And third; isn’t trying to be holy more that just following the items on some list?  Especially a list that is VERY old and whose rules or rituals may not apply to the way that many people choose to live their lives today.

So, what does it mean to be holy? When you Google the word “holy” there are 141 million hits.  Too many to go through. The dictionary defines “holy” as “being dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose; sacred.” Not enough to make the Rabbi happy.  So I had to look further.

On “myjewishlearning.com”, twentieth-century rabbinic scholar Max Kadushin uses the terms hierarchical and non hierarchical to group the list.  Hierarchical applies to the ritual acts. He explains, “Hierarchal holiness can be associated with people, places, days and objects.”  These are the things that make up the rituals in Judaism.

He goes to explain that the non-hierarchical items on the list related to moral acts.  These are acts like respect, not stealing and treating people fairly.

So being holy has something to do with observing a combination of both ritual and moral acts in ones life.  This made me wonder what are the rituals in my life that would qualify as ‘holy’ acts and morally what is most important to living a holy life.  And it led me to the next big question I had: “Why is it even important to try to be holy?”

It made sense to me that living a moral life associated itself to being holy.  Not stealing, treating people respectfully, etc are obviously important.

With regards to the ritual acts Tracey Rich of “jewfaq.org”offers an opinion on Halakhah, the Jewish rules and practices.  Tracey writes “when properly observed, Halakhah increases the spirituality in a person's life, because it turns the most trivial, mundane acts, such as eating and getting dressed, into acts of religious significance.”  

Tracey goes on to say “When you do these things, you are constantly reminded of your relationship with the Divine, and it becomes an integral part of your entire existence.”

I like the idea that you can take the most boring things in your day and make them significant, even amazing.  What if you could enjoy brushing your teeth with great enthusiasm?  What if every meal was a celebration because you used it as a chance to become closer to G-d… to be more holy?  If you could bring that significance to everything that you did you would live a very happy life.  

So Tracey’s idea that the ritual acts of Judaism help to bring people closer to G-d and holiness, and therefore also to happiness, appeal to me. 

An example in my life is celebrating Shabbat with my family.  It’s not just another dinner.  It’s a chance to get closer to family. Holiness might lead to happiness, and happiness can also lead to holiness.

The same logic could apply to the moral acts on G-d’s list.  Always treating people with respect.  Not judging people without knowing all the facts.  Giving to those who have less than you, or Tzedakah.  So both ritual and moral acts in our lives are a way of finding a way to be closer to G-d therefore helping us find holiness and happiness.  That is a good reason to try to be ‘holy.’

Still, what is that definition of holy I was looking for?  Where can holiness be found?

Kedoshim starts with the statement “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy” and the Torah tells us that we were created in the image of G-d.

A conclusion that someone could take from these two statements is that we have a part of G-d in us, and because G-d is holy we have holiness inside us waiting to come out. But the choice is ours.

I agree with the idea that there is a part of G-d and holiness inside of us.  And that it is up to us to make choices that can let the holiness out.  The ritual and moral choices. The idea of finding G-d inside of us is shared by Rabbi David Wolpe.  In his article Outer Faith & Inner Faith he writes “Because we no longer find G-d evident in the world, because science has stripped away so many of G-d's functions, we no longer look to locate G-d in the outer world but in the inner world. G-d is found not in the sky but in the soul.”

He goes on to say “In one way, this is returning to the roots of faith. The most important declaration the Bible makes is that human beings are created in G-d's image. That affirms not only that there is a G-d but that we are, somehow, G-d's reflection.”

While I’m beginning to explore some of the rituals of Judaism, the moral acts and their connection to holiness and living a happier life are of more personal relevance to me at this stage in my life. I live in a community with a group of diverse and amazing people.  How can I find opportunities to be holy in my community?

In Kedoshim G-d says “speak to all the congregation of Israel.” These laws are for the whole community not for a select few.

Stuart Binder, in his essay “The Nature of Holiness” writes “ No one can attain holiness except by merging himself with the whole of Israel.” Or in other words the communities we live in.

Binder sites Rashi who points out that we can be worthy of this holiness only if we merge our personalities with the larger community.  I believe that as Jews, we live in community. As Jews we embrace community in many ways. We get together at a Shiva as a community to help others mourn. It is a tradition to invite the community to your Sukkah during Sukkot.  We invite strangers to our Pesach seders to extend our community.  We need 10 adult Jews to make a minyan in order to pray. 

To me this means that we must be a part of the community. This means participating actively. The participation needs to be positive. Volunteering, supporting, not judging before trying to understand. Trying to be holy requires that we are positive members of our community. This, for me, is an important part of what I think being Jewish and being holy is about. 

Binder finishes his essay by saying “being holy is not defined by synagogue attendance or by outward signs of piety. Nor is a matter of ritual practice of personal attitude. Holiness can be found in our relationship with other people. It is revealed when we are just and compassionate. It is manifest when we are respectful of others and ethical in our behavior.”

I may change my ritual choices over time… I don’t know.  What I know now is that I do want to live a happy life and be a good and contributing member of my community. This means that I have to make choices that help access the ‘holiness’ inside of me.  To do this it means finding ways, even rituals, to help make every thing in my life more special. It also means that I have to remain open to making different choices and welcoming new rituals.  

The part of becoming holy that I most identify with is being a contributing and positive member of the modern and diverse community I live in. My relationships within the communities in my life are very important to me.  How I behave and contribute in these communities affects the level of happiness in my life. One of the communities I live in is a camp community. The community at camp is a place where I contribute. At camp you are living in a community where you will see each other all the time. We live together, eat together and participate together in all sort of activities. That’s why it is important to treat each other fairly and always treat each other with respect. For example if someone was home sick, I would try to make them feel better by playing a game with them. I always want them to have as much fun as I am. That is how I feel like I’m part of a community. 

Kedoshim has helped me come closer to defining ‘holiness.’  It has helped me understand that there are both ritual and moral practices in Judaism that contribute to living a happy, and holy life.  The ritual and moral practices that are most closely tied to the participation in my community, whether it be celebrating Shabbat with my family or volunteering my time where it is needed, is how I feel connected to my holiness. My community offers me ways that I can be more connected to my spiritual life and gives me new opportunities to let the holiness inside of me out.

Shabbat shalom

Parshat Vayakhel by Emily and Zach ZoharFebruary 24, 2014

Shabbat Shalom!

This week’s torah portion is VaYakhel...which means...“And he gathered together.” 

In this portion, Moses gathers the people of Israel for the first time since the incident with the golden calf at Mount Sinai. 

In Vayakhel, Moses explains to the people of Israel in painstaking detail the materials and instructions needed to build the Mishkan or Tabernacle. 

The portion reads like a shopping list for a visit to Home Depot -- lumber, fabric, curtains, pillars as well as gold, silver and bronze. It’s no wonder that VaYakhel is sometimes referred to as the “interior decorating” portion of the Torah. 

Of the 122 verses in VaYakhel only the first 3 are not about building the mishkan. In these first verses, Moses reminds the people of Israel of the sanctity of keeping Shabbat. The Israelites are about to build a temple of worship for God, yet Moses tells them before anything else that they must stop work on Shabbat or they will be put to death. 

A key message of VaYakhel is that we may not ignore the sanctity of Shabbat...not even for God. Rabbi Abraham Heschel described Shabbat as a kind of sanctuary or mishkan that we build for ourselves every week. 

While we as Jews have had neither a Temple nor a Mishkan for over 2,000 years, VaYakhel reminds us that wherever we are we have the opportunity and the obligation to construct our own space for holiness by observing Shabbat. 

In our family, we always make time for Shabbat. We gather every week -- rain, snow or shine -- at one of our family’s homes, usually our Saba and Safta’s, to light the Shabbat candles, enjoy a Shabbat dinner together and build the foundation of our own Mishkan...which is based on the love of family. 

Once we get past the “and you shall be put to death” passage, the remainder of VaYakhel is filled with joyous celebration. 

First, VaYakhel is a celebration of God, as the people of Israel gather and contribute to build a holy place to worship God. Perhaps more importantly, VaYakhel is a celebration of three important pillars of Judaism: community, generosity and creativity.

First, Community: 

VaYakhel’s Hebrew root, Koof, Hey, Lamed, is shared with words like kahal(congregation), and kehilla, (community). Used as a verb, as it is in the beginning of our Torah portion, it literally means “To cause people to become a community.”

The important thing Moses does in VaYakhel is not simply to gather the people together...but to cause them to be become a community. 

One of the key questions we have is: why weren’t the Israelites already a community given their history and the shared experience of the exodus from Egypt? 

In her Dvar Torah on this portion last year, Noa Wyman of our congregation noted that to build a community there is “The need of common denominator that is strong enough to turn a group of individuals into a community; from aggregation into a congregation.” 

VaYakhel reveals four common pillars that are important in building community: spirituality, leadership, purpose, and inclusiveness. 

For our community, the spiritual common denominator is Shabbat, the heart of our Jewish faith. When we come together as a congregation to celebrate Shabbat...rather than as individuals observing in our own homes...we are creating more than just a minyan, we are creating a community who’s sum is greater than its individual parts. That is why Moses mentions the Shabbat at the beginning of the portion.

Communities also need leaders to inspire individuals to come together as one. In VaYakhel, the leader is Moses. In our communities, we look to leaders like teachers, politicians, Rabbis and mentors to inspire us to come together and to do the “right thing.” 

A common purpose is key to rallying a community together. In VaYakhel, the common purpose is the building of the Mishkan. In our communities, we need to pursue and perform acts of shared purpose and responsibility, including acts of Tikkun Olam. 

In our family, our cousins Jaime and Alexandra have an annual lemonade stand to raise money for the homeless. For five years now, Jaime and Alexandra have brought together a community of volunteers and individuals around this common purpose and have raised over $25,000 to help people in need. Emily and I will be volunteering again at this year’s Lemonade Stand in May. We hope you will join us and contribute to Jaime and Alexandra’s important fundraising effort.  

Finally, a true community is one that is inclusive and egalitarian. VaYakhel is one of the only portions where women and men have an equal role and their contributions are equally valued. The portion notes that Moses spoke to “the entire community of the children of Israel” and that “the men came with the women.”

In this day and age we have to remember that everyone has an equal role in our communities and everyone’s role is equally valued: men/women, abled/disabled, straight/gay and every race and religion.        

Next, Generosity:

VaYakhel describes the overwhelming generosity of the Israelites. Recently freed from bondage in Egypt, wandering aimlessly in the desert and with few possessions to speak of, the Israelites are asked by Moses to find the generosity in their hearts to donate their most precious belongings to the building of the Mishkan, as an offering to God. 

Rather than complain or refuse, the Israelites do something that surprises everyone, maybe even God. They give and give and give. 

The community becomes so swept up in the experience of being generous, that their generosity overwhelms the artisans building the Mishkan. They say to Moses, “The people are bringing very much, more than is enough for the labour of the articles which God had commanded to do.” Moses then commands the people to stop giving. This may be the first time in Jewish history that a congregation is asked to STOP giving to the building fund! 

At about the same time as the Israelites are asked to stop giving, the Nesi’im, the Princes or leaders of each tribe, come forward and donate the precious stones to be worn by the high priests. Rashi notes that the Nesi’im informed Moses that they would wait until the people finished their donations and then they would provide all the missing materials for the Mishkan. As it turned out, the Israelites gave too much and all that was left for the Nesi’im to donate were the precious stones. 

Rabbi Shlomo Efraim, better know as Kli Yakar, explains that the Nesi’im were guilty of underestimating the sincerity and generosity of the Israelites. 

As leaders, the Nesi’im should have stepped forward, offered the first contributions and inspired everyone by their personal example. The lesson for all of us is that we should always find the generosity in our hearts to give first...lead by example...and never underestimate anybody else’s generosity. 

Among the most generous of the people were the women. They willingly parted with their treasured possessions, including bracelets, earrings and mirrors for the building of the Mishkan. The women’s generosity in VaYakhel is in stark contrast to their role during the incident with the golden calf. The Midrash teaches us that the women refused to contribute their jewelry for the golden calf, therefore the men took their wives’ jewelry by force. 

The women’s generosity in VaYakhel teaches us an important lesson. It’s not enough to be generous. We need to make sure that our generosity and our actions are directed towards a good cause. The righteous women of VaYakhel remind us that we have a choice to make in our lives: we can donate our possessions, talents and time to the making of golden calves...or to the construction of holy Mishkans. 

Lastly, Creativity:
The building of the Mishkan was not simply a matter of following step-by-step Ikea instructions -- which, by the way, would have left the Israelites with a lot of extra parts at the end. 

Instead, God’s instructions for the Mishkan includes intricate and ornate details that required artistic ability, craftsmanship and creative skills. 

One of the key questions that we have about the building of the Mishkan is how did the Israelites (who were slaves and worked as manual laborers in Egypt) acquire the artistic and creative skills to follow God’s instructions? 

In his commentary on this question, the Ramban writes that the skills required to construct the Mishkan had already existed in the minds of the Israelites. God’s role was to inspire them and make them realize they were capable of extraordinary work. Ramban explains that every person “perceived in their own nature how to perform this work.”                                 

The transformation of the Israelites from simple slaves to master builders is one of the great miracles of the Bible. 

It also teaches us that within each one of us there lies the potential for incredible artistic and creative capabilities. All we need is inspiration...teachers like Bezalel...and appreciation for the talents that God has given us. 

Creativity is one of the key values of our family. Emily and I both play violin...Emily and her cousin Jacklyn have a dedicated art room for their projects...our Mom is a singer and fabric artist...and our Dad is a technology entrepreneur who has started many businesses. Our extended family includes artists, musicians, writers, poets, scientists, inventors, doctors and even a Cordon Bleu chef! 

We are grateful to be part of this community and to be able to gather together here today with our family, friends and our congregation. 

Our community is not only the one we have here today. It’s also the community we inherited...the community of our ancestors...a community that we need to honour and remember. 

In December, our Saba and Safta took us on a trip to Israel as our pre-Bnai Mitzvah present. One of the places we visited in Jerusalem was Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial. This was a very difficult and emotional experience for us...to see what happened to our Jewish community not so long ago. 

While we were at Yad Vashem we decided to search for two young children who perished during the Holocaust before their Bar and Bat Miztvah. We would like to take a moment now to honour them and to share our Bnai Mitzvah with them. 

Alla bat Abram and Fira Smorkotin was born in Odessa, Ukraine in 1932. She was killed in 1942 at the age of 10.

Yitzchak ben Yoel and Rachel Brun was born in Lodz, Poland in 1930. He was killed in 1942 at the age of 12 before his Bar Mitzvah. 

We remember Alla and Yitzchak today and promise never to forget the history of our Jewish community. 

Community, generosity and creativity. These values are as important today as they were in the time of Moses. By following VaYakhel’s teachings and leading our lives according to these values we will gain not just one, but millions of mishkans spread everywhere around the world. 

 

Parshat Mishpatim by Ethan BlumbergJanuary 25, 2014

Mishpatim is the name of the Torah portion which I will be reading today.  In Hebrew mishpatim means laws.  The focus of this weeks’ parsha, laws, follows the same theme set in last weeks’ parsha in which the Ten Commandments, often seen as the most important laws of the Jewish people, were handed down by G-d at Mount Sinai.  In parshat mishpatim a variety of laws are outlined including punishment for crimes, the dietary rule about mixing milk and meat and the instruction to leave fields to lie fallow every seventh year.  A great deal of explanation in mishpatim is also spent outlining laws related to slavery.  It is this topic of slavery that I'd like to focus on because I was surprised that so much emphasis in the Torah was spent on something so awful, especially when the Jewish people had just experienced it themselves.  In today’s portion we read about such slavery rules as, ‘If a thief is sold into slavery, and you buy him, the duration of slavery should be six years.  In the seventh year, you must release him.’  And, ‘If the master gives the maidservant to his son as a wife, he must treat her as though she were not a servant.’

It may be uncomfortable for us to hear that the Torah condones slavery, especially when the Jewish people were enslaved themselves.  Rabbi Gunther Plaut in ‘The Torah: A Modern Commentary’ explains the references to slavery in the Torah in the following way:

Slavery was known throughout antiquity as far back as the fourth millennium.  The Torah deals with it as a fact of life – one, however, that involved a basic contradiction: while in many ways treated as chattel (a “thing”), a slave was also a human being.  The Torah did not resolve this contradiction and therefore did not portray slavery as something inherently evil.

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, a contemporary Baltimore based Rabbi, furthers this argument by writing,

It has often been explained that ancient agricultural economies would have collapsed without the staples of indentured servants and slaves. 

She, however, also points out the more compassionate elements of slavery outlined in parshat mishpatim.  The Torah, she explains, limits slavery, promotes the eventual release of indentured servants, and cautions slave owners to treat their slaves with justice and compassion.

Rabbi Schneirman’s commentary echos that of the famous 12th century Rabbi and philosopher Maimonides, known as “the Rambam”, who emphasized the more sympathetic nature of slavery as outlined in the Torah. Maimonides’ commentary focused on the obligations of a slave-owner to their slave.  Rambam writes:

It is permissible to work a non-Jewish servant harshly. Yet, although this is the law, the way of the pious and the wise is to be compassionate and to pursue justice, not to overburden or oppress a servant, and to provide them from every dish and every drink.

So, too, you should not denigrate a servant, neither physically nor verbally. The Torah made him your servant to do work, not to be disgraced.

Rambam is bringing up the two problems of slavery. First, the simple practical one: how do you treat your slave; and the second, the deeper moral one: is your slave your equal? In his case he is asking about a Jew who owns a non-Jewish slave. Is that slave less your equal because he isn’t Jewish? This kind of questioning leads us to view the Other always as Other. 

Again, this too I find kind of troubling and uncomfortable.  In my life, I have been taught to consider all people as equals.  I’m not sure if Rambam’s commentary is a product of his time, his beliefs, or both.

It might be easier and more comfortable to downplay slavery in the Torah because it was common in biblical times, slaves were able to be married and live as families and, according to the Torah, they were to be treated with justice and compassion.   But does this make it acceptable because this version of slavery is better compared to our modern understanding of slavery such as African-American slaves working on southern American plantations? I don’t think it is right or acceptable to downplay any type of slavery.  To me it is the same as believing that if you are born into slavery and don’t know anything else, it is fine because you don’t know what you’re missing or what your life could be like if you were not enslaved.  I came to this realization when I recently heard on the news about 3 women in London, England who had been enslaved for over 30 years, one of whom it was believed was born into slavery.  It was reported that while the women led controlled lives, they did have some freedoms.  Does this not sound very similar to the description of slavery during biblical times?  Yet today we would definitely describe these women’s situation as horrific and unconscionable.  The tragic story of these 3 women did not happen in some remote corner of the world, but in one of the world’s most modern and developed countries.  How many other situations are there like this one that we don’t yet know about.  Even more troubling, these women’s situations are far from unique.  While slavery is illegal in every country in the world, the 2013 Global Slavery index estimates that there are still an estimated 29.8 million slaves worldwide – and from the story of the women in Britain, we know that it is just not happening in developing countries.   While I could not find information specific to Canada, I did learn on the website ‘Free the Slaves,’ that it is estimated that almost 15,000 slaves are trafficked into the United States annually.  I think we can also assume this is happening in Canada too.  They are often smuggled or arrive in North America under false pretences.  

Contemporary slavery can take many forms.  People, both children and adults, are still sold like objects and forced to work for little or no pay.   Sometimes people are sold overtly, other times people become bonded to traffickers whom they come to owe large sums of money. Unsuspecting people, often looking for better opportunities abroad, fall victim to traffickers.  This frequently results in the trafficked people providing their labour as repayment for a loan or other costs associated with their arrangement. They end up working mostly in the sex industry, domestic service, agriculture, and manufacturing.  

I think many people, like me before I began to research this subject, didn’t realize that slavery was such a big problem in the world today.  In the same way that parshat mishpatim encouraged me to learn about slavery in the Torah, it has led me to think more about modern day slavery.  While the Torah instructed slave-owners to treat their slaves with justice and compassion, we don’t really know if they did.  Today slavery is against the law but it still happens.  Remember, mishpatim means laws, and in the case of modern slavery, it seems rules are ‘made to be broken.’  So what can we do – or me as a bar-mitzvah.  The first thing, which I’m doing today, is drawing attention to modern slavery.  A recent article in the Globe and Mail asked?:

How many slaves work for you? Paradoxically – in 2013 – the question is still relevant, and the answer surprising. Depending on where you live, what you buy, what your lifestyle is, you have almost certainly been touched by slavery.

In fact, maybe slaves were involved in picking the produce you eat, manufacturing the clothes you wear or have been part of the cleaning service that cleaned your home or office.  Especially in the manufacture of clothing abroad, there are many documented cases of kids my age, and younger, working up to 18 hours a day for little or no pay, making clothes.  

Some suggestions that I found on the internet about dealing with modern slavery included petitioning governments to enforce anti-slavery laws and giving money to organizations devoted to stopping slavery.  Draw on the compassion towards slaves explained in parshat mishpatim and direct some your tzedakah, both in money and deeds, towards today’s slaves because, as we say at Passover, we too were slaves in the land of Egypt.

Shabbat Shalom

Parshat Vayigash by Ari LevyJuly 12, 2013

Shabbat shalom, this weeks pasha is called vayigash, but in order to understand it I need to go back to what happened in last weeks portion. last week joseph’s brothers came to egypt, because there was a famine and they needed food. Keep in mind these are the same brothers that betrayed joseph and sold him into slavery all those years ago. Joseph is now the pharohs advisor, very powerful, but he does not reveal his identity to his brothers. instead, he pulls a trick on them; the brothers originally come without their youngest brother benjamin because their father jacob didnt let him come with them in fear that he might get harmed. joseph turns them away and demands they return with benjamin. jacob is heartbroken, first joseph ‘died’ and now benjamin is leaving too. once benjamin arrives joseph gives them food and silver, but then joseph frames benjamin by slipping his goblet into benjamin’s bag as he is ready to leave. he then tells his servants to chase them down. when the goblet is found benjamin is arrested for theft. Vayigash begins with judah, the oldest brother, pleading with joseph to take him instead of benjamin. judah says he cannot possibly return to his father and have to tell him that benjamin was taken. at this point joseph can’t restrain himself anymore, he says “im joseph, is my father still alive?" 

My question is: Why does he stop and reveal himself at this time? i have 3 different theories. the first possibility is that he realizes that while he is trying to get revenge on his brothers he is hurting his father and benjamin in the process, and he feels guilty because they never did anything wrong to him. Another possibility is that he felt he balanced things out. Biblical scholar Richard Elliot Friedman notes that the money joseph put In their bags when he framed them is the same exact amount of money with which they sold him into slavery, so financially they are even. The oldest brother Judah, who sold Joseph, is now willing to sacrifice himself to save Benjamin, he also admits selling Joseph was a mistake, so they are emotionally even. Rabbi Gunther Plaut in his commentary says the scales are balanced and Joseph can speak to them as their brother instead of as the Pharoah's vizier. One more possibility is that he simply wanted revenge, and once he got it he felt satisfied, although thats not a very nice way to think of our hero joseph

at this point in the story, his brothers are too shocked and terrified to respond to Joseph. “i am joseph your brother, whom you sold to egypt.” he says “don’t be sad, let there be no anger in your eyes because you sold me here. it wasn’t you who sent me here, God sent me here to save you from the famine.” he then tells them to go back and tell jacob he is still alive and to bring him to egypt. when jacob hears this his spirit lifts and he is happy. It all seems like a happy ending. the irony is that joseph promises them all a great life in egypt, but god promises to bring them back to canaan; the promise of a great life in Egypt turns out to be 400 years of slavery, and the promise to return to canaan takes those 400 years of slavery, 40 more years in the desert, and the death of a whole generation. its only then that god fulfills that promise.

Joseph can forgive his brothers but he can never forget what they did to him. their relationship is damaged. the torah says that when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he kissed Benjamin and wept on his neck, and Benjamin did the same back to Joseph. Joseph also kisses his other brothers but the text never mentions them kissing him back. It is clear that even after they make up, the brothers still dont like joseph. it is not without reason that they have hard feelings towards him. in his childhood dream, Joseph predicts that they will all bow down to him, and in fact that dream came true when his brothers came to him in Egypt. In addition, the midrash suggests that when still a child Joseph falsely accused his older brothers of many terrible things including sexual assault, and they obviously still held that against him. they didn't know that the score has been evened when joseph himself was falsely accused of sexual assault by Potiphar’s wife. 

As a brother myself, I think Joseph's brothers took it a little too far. I have been mad at my little brothers many times but I have never thought about killing them. Granted Joseph did some bad things to his brothers but what they did to him seems unreasonable. What surprises me is that after they try to murder him and sell him into slavery, he is forgiving once they come to him in Egypt. I probably wouldn't be able to forgive my brothers if they ever did something like that to me, so in that way my relationship with my brothers is different than Joseph's. The sibling rivalries are the same, and generally it involves ganging up against one person like in the story, so in that way it is similar. Overall though I don't think my relationship with my brothers is the same as Joseph's relationship with his brothers. Joseph and his brothers relationship is full of jealousy and trickery, but I don't really think I have any jealousy in my relationship with my brothers at all, and very little trickery; mostly just fighting. There is no wicked plotting and there is no favouritism by the parents in the way that there was in the parsha. What is universal about sibling relationships is that we all get in fights at times, but we all have the choice to forgive each other; although many people choose not to, or only choose to forgive when it is too late.

 Maybe we can all learn a little something from Joseph, if Joseph finds the strength to forgive his brothers after being stripped of his coat, tossed in a pit and then sold as a slave then maybe we can find a way to forgive people for things they've done to us. at the end of the day Joseph felt relief when he forgave his brothers and he was able to move on. There's a lesson there for all of us. Forgiving isn't easy, and it doesn't make things all better, but it's a good start. Shabbat shalom. 

 

Parshat Bereshit by Jonathan KatzSeptember 28, 2013

Good morning.

Today’s Torah portion is Parashat Bereshit. Many of us are familiar with Parashat Bereshit, which contains the story of creation, the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Abel and Cain. We will discuss some of the details later, but since many of those stories are familiar, we can take the opportunity and ask a more general question before we begin reading: 

Why are we reading the Torah at all? Do we read the Torah because it’s scientifically and historically correct? 

We can assume that we don’t read it for that purpose, due to a multitude of reasons:

First, consider the story of creation, which I will read in a moment. The common scientific theory is that billions of years ago the world was created when the universe started expanding rapidly. That was the beginning of the Big Bang. The Torah, of course, tells us another story, and if we have to choose which one is correct, I believe that most of us today would trust the astrophysicists, not the traditional commentary. 

But even if we wanted to believe the biblical story, there is actually more than one creation myth to choose from. The first chapter of my Parasha details how the world was created in six days. But in the second chapter, a similar creation story is told but with some significant differences. For example, the second story does not mention six days of creation, and might even be understood as suggesting that it all happened in one day. 

Another example, in the first chapter of Genesis, man and woman are made at the same time, but in the second chapter, God created man first, and only later fashions woman from the rib of man. How can we find the Torah valid historically if there are moments in the Torah that aren’t consistent with other moments? 

A second problem in reading the Torah literally is that some of its stories are similar to the creation myths of other Near East ancient cultures, and it makes sense to think that our ancestors were familiar with those stories. 

For example: our story of creation is similar to the Babylonian creation story. In the Torah, there was only chaos before God created the world. In the Babylonian myth, the world was an abyss before its creation. 

In our story of how humanity was created the Torah says that we were made from the earth: Adam was made from the Adama (which is earth in Hebrew). This is similar to the Greek legends telling how the Titan Prometheus made all of mankind out of clay. 

These examples may support the view that the Torah does not present a single creation story, but a collection of different stories representing different beliefs, and that those different stories were later edited to reflect or shape a common view. In other words, the editors of the Torah collected some common stories, and modified them. So the question is not only what those stories say, but what are they trying to teach us.

So here is my answer to a literal reading of the creation story in particular and the whole Torah in general, and this answer might even comfort our Rabbi! 

Many Jewish leaders—even those in ancient days, not just modern Reform rabbis— do not take the Torah literally. For example, the medieval commentator Rashi said that the world was probably not made in seven days, but in thousands of years. He quoted the psalm from Tehilim, which says: “For a day in Your sight is like a thousand years.” 

Rashi would say to his students: “The Torah does not intend to teach the order of creation. There is P’shat, which means simple; the literal take on the Torah. Then there is the D’rash, which is the hidden meaning, or message of the Torah. Rashi taught the D’rash, which is what truly benefits us in life.

Indeed, Rashi’s view is even consistent with the way that some modern scientists view the Torah. For example, Joel Primack is a renowned astrophysicist, who co-developed the cold dark matter theory, which helps explain the formation and structure of the universe. Primack is also a Jew who reads the Bible regularly. He believes that God and science can co-exist. He does not take the Bible as scientific text, due to all the inconsistencies inside those many pages. But he still as much as a Jew as the rest of us, as much a believer in God. 

For scientists like Primack, the teaching of science and the teaching of the Torah do not conflict, because science is very good in explaining “what” happened, but is not very good in shedding light on “why”, and in telling us what all of that means for us. When we read the Torah not literally—not for its P’shat, but for its D’rash—we can gain some meaningful insights. 

So, if we don’t think that the Torah is a book that necessarily contains an accurate scientific or historic truth why do we read from the Torah at all? We read from it to learn from it. We read it so we can learn lessons for life and how to treat each other and the world. We learn how to go through our daily lives. 

Though we understand WHY we might want to read the Torah, we might still wonder why do we read it every week, and then start all over again every year? I ask this timely question because today is the first Shabbat in which we start the yearly cycle of readings all over again.

In a way, we can think about our congregation as a book club. Every week (or two) we meet, read a piece of literature and then discuss it. We discuss what we learned and how we can use that information to better ourselves. So far so good. 

But when we think about it, it’s a very strange book club. Arguably, we could read and draw lessons from many texts. So why do we read this text in particular, and why start all over again every year? Why don’t we let anyone choose whatever text they want to read?

There may be several answers. First, the Torah gives us a common language, and a common language makes it easier for us to communicate. When we communicate better we become smarter. Common language also unites us and makes our community stronger. Becoming stronger and smarter sounds like a good thing, right?

Is more power and wisdom necessarily a good thing? Today’s Parasha deals with this question. The serpent tells the woman “God knows that on the day that you eat [from the Tree of Knowledge], your eyes will be opened, and you will be like angels, knowing good and evil." And God said, after Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, “man has become like one of us, having the ability of knowing good and evil.” 

God is clearly fearful of the power of knowledge that now humans possess. Knowledge is power, and we learned from the Uncle Ben that with great power comes great responsibility. God might have been fearful that too-powerful humans may not use their power responsibly. We can’t say that he didn’t have a point.

Many of us are also familiar with the story of the Tower of Babel, read in next week’s Parasha. The story of the Tower of Babel repeats a similar theme. The people were united and strong, so they decided to construct a massive Tower that reached to the heavens. God began to fear the humans who were reaching ever so close to his domain, so he decided to split the language of humanity to many separate languages. Thus, humanity could not communicate with each other. They became weak and were unable to finish the construction of the Tower. 

So as we read the Torah our community of Jewish people becomes stronger, and smarter. And while building a strong and smart community is generally a good thing, the Torah also reminds us to the possibility that too much power can lead to power abuse, and unity can become uniformity. 

Therefore, while we want unity, we also appreciate the value of diversity. The Tower of Babel diversified our languages so while on the negative side we find it harder to communicate across cultures and points of view, on the positive side diversity of voices and perspectives makes us much richer.

This brings us back to this week’s Parasha, and to the different creation stories that I mentioned earlier. One of the explanations of why there many examples in the Torah of stories that are inconsistent with each other is that the Torah is a collection of the stories of different groups that early in our history came together. 

Prof. Israel Knohl, a biblical scholar from the Hebrew University, argues that the origin of the Jewish people was three ethnic groups, one Canaanites, another arrived from northwest Syria and the third from Egypt. He shows how the Bible attempts to combine the different beliefs and stories of those different groups into one narrative. If he is correct, then the Jews can take also take credit for inventing multiculruralism…

So reading the Torah is a source of unity, but reading it also reminds us the value of diversity. Reading the same text as Jews all over the world, and through all ages, is a solid unifying factor in a very fractured world.

So here we are today, at the beginning of a new year and of a new cycle of reading the Torah. Together, we begin a new cycle, which is at once as old as our ancestors and as new as my interpretations today. 




SHABAT SHALOM!

Parshat Korach by Aidyn Silverberg-CeresneJune 22, 2013

Shabbat Shalom. The portion we are reading today is Korach. Before this portion starts Moses and Aaron have been chosen by G-d to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and direct them to the Promised Land. 

But our story takes place still in the desert.

Korach, Moses’s cousin, an important, well-respected Levite from a prominent family -- who was actually the great grandson of Levi -- started a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, who are also from the tribe of Levi. 

He gathers 250 important leaders as his followers and publicly accuses Moses and Aaron of misusing their power and pretending they are holier than everybody else. 

Moses then tells them to meet the next day in the tent of meeting where G-d will decide the question of who should be in charge. 

The following day, during their meeting, the parsha tells us that the earth opens up and swallows the people questioning Moses and Aaron, including Korach, along with their households, and their possessions. 

Those who remain of Korach’s followers are still angry because they say that Moses caused G-d to kill a part of their community. 

G-d retaliates against their anger by sending a horrible plague that kills 14,700 Israelites. 

One of the major themes that emerges from parashat Korach is that of obedience versus disobedience. When we first think about obedience, the automatic reaction is: obedience is good;  disobedience is bad. 

You have to listen to your parents, your employer, your teachers, your Rabbi. 

You must obey the laws of society. This is considered obedience. It’s what is expected of you, and is usually a source of praise. 

Korach is expected to be obedient and embrace the people in power who are well-respected leaders. 

When he disobeys Moses, and by extension G-d, he is punished by being swallowed by the earth. 

Although this is a harsh punishment I think it serves as a warning not to disobey G-d. 

Although Korach didn’t directly disobey G-d, he disobeyed Moses and because Moses was appointed by G-d then he was indirectly questioning and disobeying G-d.

Interestingly, Korach’s sons choose not to support their father in the rebellion and therefore are spared the wrath of G-d. 

Although the Torah commands us to “honor your mother and father,” in this case, when Korach’s sons do not obey their father they are not punished and instead are rewarded by being granted their lives. 

Instead of honoring their own father, they are led to honor a more prominent father, G-d. 

In fact, the descendants of Korach did not go on to obscurity. They actually made important contributions to Judaism. They wrote Psalms we study and sing, and even read as part of our regular prayers. And one descendent is Samuel, a famous Prophet. So not only does G-d spare the descendants of Korach, G-d goes on to appoint them as leaders and great Jewish teachers. 

What does that tell us about our obedience to G-d and the directive to also obey our parents? 

Is there a tension that exists here?

Certainly this tension is present in today’s Parsha. 

I think the subtext of this Parsha may be that G-d is telling us there might be times in our lives when it is okay to disobey our parents, or other authority figures, for the greater good of society, our community, and our religion. 

I am sure we can all think of times when we have had to make hard decisions and face that dilemma.

The rabbis certainly believed that there were times when it is okay not to obey your parents for many reasons.  In Leviticus 19:3 we read: “Each of you must respect you mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the LORD your G-d.” 

The rabbis are confused as to why these two separate things—respecting parents and observing Shabbat—are both mentioned in the same sentence. 

The answer they come up with is that G-d is trying to tell us that even though you have to respect your parents, you have to put important torah laws before respecting your parents. 

So if they tell you to kill someone you can refuse without worrying about honoring them. 

Rashi comments on Genesis 28:9 - that Jacob is punished for leaving his house, for abandoning his parents, for 22 years while he is working for Laban. 

His punishment is that Joseph, his favorite son, ends up disappearing, and is presumed dead for 22 years. 

But we know that Jacob was actually away for an additional 14 years which, the midrash, tells us, he spent studying torah. 

He is not punished for those additional years because studying torah is more important than honoring your parents.  

A more contemporary version of Korach’s rebellion against Moses is what we now refer to as civil disobedience. 

Civil Disobedience is the refusal to follow certain laws or requirements by staging a peaceful political protest. 

If, as mentioned earlier, people think that obedience is a positive virtue and disobedience is a negative virtue, I wonder how we could categorize civil disobedience?
Many people believe that civil disobedience is not an appropriate course of action. 

In fact, The Rambam (Maimonides) taught that it is permissible to disagree with those in authorities and even to publically express your disagreement. 

But, he teaches us that it is not permissible to act contrary to the decision of those in charge.  

However, most examples of civil disobedience (for the right reason) result in a positive change. 

Does this mean that if we engage in civil disobedience G-d will punish us? 

Or would G-d want us to assist in a positive change (even if our actions seem controversial)? 

If people are being treated unfairly should we do nothing? 

There are many examples of civil disobedience, past and present. 

One example that is particularly important to me is Mahatma Gandhi. 

Gandhi defied British law and developed the concept of non-violent protest to help stop discrimination against Indian people. 

Another example of civil disobedience is the story of an African Nova Scotia woman named Viola Desmond who was told to move to the balcony of a theatre in New Glasgow. Instead, she refused to do so, insisting that she could sit on the ground floor where the white people were permitted to sit. 
She was arrested, fined, and thrown into jail overnight. She exemplifies civil disobedience, in taking a quiet yet firm stand against institutionalized racism.      

During the Holocaust there were numerous examples of civil disobedience where Christians hid Jewish people in their efforts to protect friends -- and even strangers  -- and take a stand against Hitler and the Nazi regime.

There are also many examples of the rabbis engaging in a kind of civil disobedience – there are places in the Torah where the rabbis are uncomfortable with a particular law: and eye for an eye, capital punishment, the stubborn and disobedient child who should be stoned to death. 

The Torah is the word of G-d, and yet they legislate in such a way that turns "G-d's law" on its head. And yet they do it in a respectful, "civil" manner.

A Union for Reform Judaism article from spring 2009 says: "Jewish rabbinic literature is filled with illustrations of vaunted religious personalities who -- against God -- in the name of God, and for the sake of God -- challenge egregious biblical laws. 

Significantly, in some of these confrontations, scriptural edicts [ee-dics] are reversed, nullified, or overturned. 

For example, when Moses is bringing the Ten Commandments from Sinai, he reads God’s pronouncement in the Second Commandment that children will be punished to the third and fourth generations for the sins of their fathers. 

Shocked by such an unjust law, the midrash tells us, Moses questions God’s judgment: “Sovereign of the Universe, consider the righteousness of Abraham, and the idol worship of his father, Terach. 

Does it make sense to punish the child for the transgressions of the fathers?” (Numbers Rabbah Hukkat XIX, 33).

In one respect Korach’s actions can be viewed as justified civil disobedience

But another way to view Korach, which is the way I see it, is that Korach’s true motives were to take all the power for himself and be the leader of the Israelites. 

If Korach truly wanted equality and the people to be treated more fairly, then he might not have been punished, but because his true motives were not for everyone, just simply for himself, G-d chose to punish him.

Civil disobedience is about disobedience for the greater good, not disobedience out of selfish desire.  

Korach is truly not doing something for the greater good and he was justly punished. 

I began this D’var torah with the oversimplified position that obedience is good and disobedience is bad. 

Throughout my research I’ve come to understand that the matter is more complicated. 

In some cases disobedience may be more justified than obedience, and even necessary, while obedience or compliance to a questionable or selfish cause may be more problematic than defiance.

We have to pick and choose our acts of disobedience,.... And really consider the benefits and consequences of our actions. 

In some cases you might do well to defy authority, but beware -- you might be swallowed by the earth.

This parsha teaches us that in our daily lives we have to make sacrifices that will benefit other people, even if this means disobeying someone or something. 

We must always consider when disobedience is the right course of action.

Shabbat Shalom.

Parshat Beha'alotecha by Esther EisenMay 25, 2013

Shabbat Shalom! 

My Torah portion, B’ haalot’ cha is very eventful. Some of the more significant parts that happen in my portion are the following: The Israelites complain about the food, which is different than what they had in Egypt. The Israelites won’t stop whining so Moses creates a council of elders to help him. But this doesn’t stop the Israelites from complaining, so G-d gives them so much meat that they get sick and die. But this is not the part I chose to focus on today. Today, I want to focus on a part that involves Miriam, an inspiring Jewish leader.   

The Jewish people are travelling through the desert from Egypt to Israel. They are restless and complaining yet again. Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ siblings, are complaining as well. They complain to G-d about Moses’ wife. Miriam and Aaron say, “He married a Cushite woman!” This complaint causes a whole lot of trouble, and I am going to explain why later on. They also complain because they believe that since they are also prophets, they should be treated as equals to Moses. “Has Adonai only spoken through Moses?’ Has ‘G-d’ not spoken through us as well?” G-d gets mad that they are questioning Moses and he punishes Miriam with a terrible disease. But He doesn’t punish Aaron. Then, Aaron asks Moses to pray for Miriam’s recovery and Moses does. He says “O G-d, pray heal her!” and she recovers. The Jewish people, in support of her, wait for her to recover before they leave on their journey to Israel.

Something that I noticed and learned when I read and analyzed this part is that what happened wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair for Miriam, and it wasn’t fair for Moses. In my d’var Torah, I’m going to question different points of my parsha and try and figure out what they mean and why they happened.  

There are many questions that came up when I read this, but I am only going to focus on 3. The first is why was only Miriam punished? The second is why did G-d get so angry when Miriam and Aaron were just questioning things? And my third question is why did Moses take responsibility for something that wasn’t his responsibility?



So my first question is an obvious one: Why was only Miriam punished but not Aaron? 


“Vati da ber Miriam” were the exact words from the torah that were used to describe when Miriam and Aaron were talking to G-d. The verb “vati da ber” means “ she spoke” in the feminine singular form. So, according to the Hebrew grammar, it looks like Miriam was the one who initiated and carried out the complaint, alone. This is what many of the Rabbinic commentators suggested. 

Maybe G-d punished Miriam so harshly because he thought that it would bring the Israelites, who had been bickering amongst themselves, closer together, which it did. Supporting Miriam through her punishment was a cause they all believed in. They were loyal to Miriam because she had protected Moses when he was a baby in his basket and he was now their leader. It’s not fair that Miriam should have to suffer to bring together the Israelites. Yet that’s usually what ends up happening when you are a leader. Look at the leaders who have made major sacrifices to protect and help something bigger and more important than themselves. John F. Kennedy, Yitzhak Rabin, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, and the list goes on. 

Dr. Masha Turner, a biblical scholar in Israel, writes another reason why Miriam was punished in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. She thought it could be because Miriam was a woman. This could also explain why, after leaving the tent, Miriam was silenced and is never heard from again in the Torah. Rabbi Ruth Sohn, a Jewish text study teacher, in Los Angeles, also wrote in The Women’s Torah Commentary that maybe this was the choice of male scholars who wrote down the Torah. They could have been jealous that a woman had that kind of power.

So my first question of why Miriam has many answers, everything from sacrifice to sexism.



My second question is why did G-d get so angry when Miriam and Aaron were just questioning things. Aren’t Jewish people encouraged to question things? 

One reason may be that G-d felt he needed to protect Moses from his siblings' criticism. The Torah says, “Now the man Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth!" (Bamidbar 12:3) Ibn Ezra, a medieval commentator, explains this by saying that Moses never wanted power or to be superior over any person. Another medieval commentator, Ramban, adds that because Moses was so humble, he wouldn’t defend himself, and that’s why G-d stepped in.


Another reason might be that G-d was not happy that Miriam and Aaron were jealous of Moses’ power. Miriam and Aaron wanted to be prophets just like Moses. One of the reasons they wanted this was so they would have more power. Doesn’t everyone want power? But what is power? Is power happiness? In my haftarah, there is a memorable and inspirational quote that describes what I am talking about. “Not by might and not by power, but by spirit shall we all live in peace.”

My last theory about why G-d was angry is because Miriam and Aaron were complaining about the Cushite woman, Moses’ wife. There are two thoughts about who this Cushite woman was. One was that she was Moses’ second wife, and that she was from Ethiopia. If we agree with this theory, did G-d feel Miriam and Aaron were being racist in the way they talked about her? The problem wasn’t that they were complaining that he married another woman. That didn’t matter, in fact it was allowed in those days. The problem was that they were complaining specifically because she was Ethiopian.

The other theory is that this Cushite woman was Tziporrah, Moses’ wife who is mentioned in other places in the Torah. Even if Miriam was just concerned about her brother’s marriage, she should have talked directly to Moses, and not gossiped to Aaron about it.  It states very clearly in the Torah that it’s wrong to gossip, and maybe that’s why G-d was so angry.

So my second question- why weren’t Aaron and Miriam just allowed to question things- reveals that they were not “just” questioning- they were gossiping, and perhaps being racist, and being jealous. That’s not “just” questioning. 

My third and final question is why did Moses take responsibility for something that wasn’t his fault? It’s not fair that Moses took the responsibility to pray to G-d to heal Miriam. What did he do? He was the one who was good to everyone else and they complained about him. He was humble and he helped others before himself. He put others’ happiness ahead of his own. He sacrificed his own marriage because he valued his relationship with G-d more, knowing that G-d could do more for the people of Israel through Moses. Moses chose to rise above his own sister’s criticism of him to pray for her to heal. How many of us would try to help someone who hurt us? 

The Talmud states that Jews are to be Rachamim b’nei Rachamim, which means compassionate children of compassionate ancestors. Our ancestors were teaching us that this is an important value that they passed on to us, and I think we should be passing it on to each generation. 

Now that we have raised those questions, we can think about what this entire story is supposed to teach us. I think we can learn a very important lesson. Something I have learned is that everything in the torah is there for a reason; there isn’t one letter that doesn’t have a purpose. So what’s the purpose of this portion? Is it as simple as life isn’t fair, and we have to accept that? But wait, torah is never simple. I think there are 2 lessons here. The first is life isn’t fair and that’s the way it was in Miriam’s time, and in my time. The second lesson is what are we going to do to make the world a fairer place. I think it’s about how we can change the things that aren’t fair. Aaron and Miriam just complained, like many of us do. They didn’t take action to change what wasn’t fair. Maybe they enjoyed complaining more than taking action. It’s way easier to complain than to put yourself on the line and take steps to get rid of the unfairness of our world. It’s easier to sit and watch other people fix the world than to actually do it yourself.

We can make changes in our community, as Jewish people, and in our personal lives.



One example of a thing that isn’t fair is cancer. It strikes the rich and the poor, the young and the old. It doesn’t choose between people. For my tzedakah project I sold daffodils for the Canadian Cancer Society. I hope that I made a change because cancer really isn’t fair.

My portion ends with the Jewish people continuing on their journey to Israel. As I set out on my journey for the rest of my life, I hope to continue to try my best to make life fairer for others. One of my goals in my life is to become a lawyer. I want to be a lawyer because I want to help people who don’t have the strength or courage to help themselves. My Bat Mitzvah portion is pushing me, and all of us, to take that challenge seriously and really make a difference.  

Shabbat Shalom.

Parshat Emor by Noa WymanApril 27, 2013

Shabbat Shalom everyone. Today we read Emor. Emor takes place with B’nei Israel in the desert. Ha’Shem tells Moshe the laws for the Cohanim. How they deal with death, who they can marry, who is qualified to be a Cohen, who can eat the sacred donations, and what animals can be sacrificed. Then it describes how to celebrate the holidays of Pesach, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and Sukkot. That’s a lot of holidays is one parsha, but wait! It’s not over yet, finally, it tells the story of the blasphemer, someone who speaks the true name of g-d in vain. Ha’Shem tells Moshe to instuct b’nei Israel stone him to death. Then, the topic I will be focusing on, Ha’Shem gives the law of an eye for an eye. 

During my research, I was shocked to find an article, regarding a legal case in Saudi Arabia. One man had accidentally paralyzed another man in a fight. The court was looking for a surgeon, who would surgically sever the first man’s spinal cord, paralyzing him. The court was looking for a ‘just’ solution using their literal interpretation of the law of an eye for an eye. In 2010.

As harsh as this seems, it’s better than the pre biblical forms of revenge. At one time, if a person poked another’s eye out, the first might seek revenge and kill the person who blinded them. The Torah tells us it should be an eye for an eye, not a life for an eye. The punishment must fit the crime. 

While some Islamic courts still take an eye for an eye literally, from the first Talmudic interpretations, Jewish scholars have said that it should not be taken literally. But I wondered if it was possible that we are the mistaken ones. The translation sounds pretty literal. The Torah says:

If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: 

fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. 

One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death.

I was very confused. Whenever we hear of people maiming each other and using this law to justify it, we think it is barbaric. But are we the ones in the wrong? Are they doing the right thing? 

 After reading so many interpretations during my research, I think I now understand why Jewish scholars have chosen not to take it word for word from the Torah. As the 21st century Jewish Scholar Ezri Wyman, also known as my sister so eloquently put, ‘Jeez G-d, meet Ghandi, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.’

Rav Saadya Gaon is a 10th century Jewish philosopher, he is very clear that we can’t take this text literally. He gives us the example of a man who partially blinds another. He asks how we can give a retaliatory blow that is calculated to have the exact same results. He also asks; what could be done if a blind man blinds someone with normal eyesight? He’s trying to show us that there is an unequal balance. “The poor man can become rich and pay; only the blind man can never pay for what he did!” 

It was taught in the school of Hezakia, in the Talmud, only an eye for eye, only a life for life, and not a life and an eye for an eye; if you think of it as literally meant, it could happen that an eye and a life would be taken for an eye, in the process of blinding a person, they might be killed.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai said in The Talmud Bava Kamma  “If a blind man blinded another, or a cripple maimed another, how would we be able to take an eye for an eye literally?” Rabbi bar Yohai is right, equal is not always fair, and fair is not always equal. Take the example of two children. They have both just committed to same punishable offence of damaging property in their parents’ house. One child is 2, the other 12. Do they deserve the same punishment? To punish them equally would not be punishing them fairly, and to punish them fairly would not be punishing the equally. A 2 year old may not understand the punishment given to a 12 year old, and a 12 year old might not react to a punishment meant for a 2 year old.

Rabbi bar Yohai continues to say “The Torah states:  One law there shall be for you, meaning a law that is equitable for all of you.” The Torah says this just one verse after ‘an eye for an eye.’ The Torah must know that this literal interpretation isn’t fair for all of us. By showing us this contradiction it is possible that the Torah suggesting an alternate interpretation. 

So, if the Torah means that it should be monetary compensation for an eye, why not just say so? If it did just mean money, could the rich go around poking peoples’ eyes out? They could afford it.

Rabbi Ashi said, in Baba Kamma ‘It means to say that the valuation will be made not of the eye of the injured person but of that of the offender.’ 

He means that they should have to pay emotionally too, they should have to pay as if their own eye was being taken away. They must feel the responsibility of their actions. 

Fast forward about 1000 years.

Today, we have found ways to pay a monetary amount, without ever getting emotionally attached. Look at an insurance company. I you get into a car accident and you destroy the other person’s car, the insurance company deals with it. You never even have to talk to the victim, even if the accident was entirely your fault. The insurance company totally removes any connection or emotions you would have towards the person you harmed. We are detaching ourselves from our victims therefore detaching ourselves from our actions. 

Contrast that with Canadian courts that use the victim’s story to influence a punishment. Victim impact statements are used to ensure that the courts and the perpetrator hear and understand the experience of the victim. That’s how we try to make the perpetrator pay emotionally.

That’s just what Rabbi Ashi was talking about!

But our ability to interpret the texts is why we keep using the laws. The literal interpretation of an eye for an eye contradicts Canadian law. That would make it very difficult for people to use an eye for an eye today.

The interpretations also fit our reality so much better than the literal meaning, as Rabbi Bar Yohai said, it is impossible to both have one equal law for all, and take an eye for an eye literally. 

So the Talmud is really on to something. The Talmud is an ancient thing, written about the even more ancient Torah. Funny how something so old can still be so relevant in our lives today.

Shabbat Shalom.  

Parshat Bereshit by Maya Abrasion October 13, 2012

This morning I read the very first Parashah in the Torah, Bereishit, the story of creation, with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. To summarize the main contents of the portion: it starts with the 7 days of creation. Light and dark were created on the first day, which later became night and day, then sky on the second, and water and earth on the third. The fourth day brought the sun and the moon and the stars, and the fifth living creatures. On the last day of creation G-d created humans, and on the seventh day G-d rested. Adam and Eve were created in G-d’s image and lived in the Garden of Eden.

They were instructed by G-d to eat any of the fruit in the garden, except from the tree of knowledge. However, a cunning serpent convinced Eve to eat the fruit, and she and Adam did. G-d was angered, and Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden. Eve then had two sons, Cain and Abel. One day Abel brought G-d an offering of his finest sheep, and Cain brought some of his harvest. G-d was unhappy with Cain, and he became jealous of his brother and killed him. Cain was punished for killing Abel and was sent to wander the earth.

The part of my portion that stood out to me most was the exchange between God and Adam after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. G-d says to Adam “Where are you?” Shouldn’t G-d have known where Adam was? Why would God ask Adam a question for which he already knew the answer?

 A Women’s Commentary describes G-d’s question as “more than a mere request for location, it is an opportunity to accept responsibility.” G-d is giving Adam a chance to own up to his mistake. But Adam does not, instead he replies “I heard the sound of You in the garden; I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid myself.” G-d gives Adam another chance to take responsibility for his own actions, in asking “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat the fruit of the tree that I forbade you to eat?” and Adam says “The woman whom you gave me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, so I ate.”
 

Not only does Adam not own up to his wrongdoings, first he blames the incident on his wife. Then worse, in the first recorded use of Chutzpah, he goes as far as to blame G-d! When he says “the woman whom you gave me,” Adam is blaming his creator for his own bad mistake. By blaming others, Adam is taking the easy way out.

The Etz Chayim Torah and Commentary said that “Adam and Eve seek to blame everyone but themselves for what happened.... If Eve did wrong by eating the Forbidden fruit, Adam does wrong by refusing to take responsibility.”
 
Adam should have known better. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik said, “It is the human ability – and necessity – to take responsibility for his/her own life as well as for the lives around him/her which is the most important aspect of the human personality.” I believe, if Adam had taken responsibility, then perhaps his punishment would not have been so harsh. Maybe he would have been allowed in the Garden on weekends. If everybody took responsibility for his or her own actions, imagine what our everyday life would be like. There comes a point when we all learn that blaming others is not the best way of solving our problems.

As I become Bat Mitzvah, it is very important that I learn to be responsible for myself, and even others. Being an adult member of the Jewish community means that I need to think before I act, and be mature enough not to blame others for my mistakes. When writing – or rather forgetting to write - my D’var Torah, I said to my mom, “you forgot to remind me!” Why hadn’t I remembered myself? Why did I immediately feel the need to put it on somebody else? Does it make us feel better to think that our problems are not our fault? And how does that improve the situation in any way?

I think that ‘The Blame Game’ is our way of taking the easy way out. If we can convince ourselves, and others, that our problems are really not our problems, then the issue is put in someone else’s hands to deal with – passing the buck. But how can we live with ourselves if we don’t work out our own issues? If we shift our issues over to the next person, perhaps it will snowball into something even bigger.

In my house with my sisters, ‘The Blame Game’ is popular. It is too simple to say “she started it” and walk away. But is this the best way of dealing with a situation? Although I sometimes do not realize it, the best thing to do is just to work out the problem, so that it does not happen again. Or at least for another 10 minutes.

We have to react more honestly. People respect honesty. Even in a court of law, those who are guilty and plead guilty often end up with shorter sentences. When we blame others we are essentially lying about what really happened. If Adam had told G-d that he had eaten the fruit, and apologized for it, perhaps G-d would have accepted his apology and been more lenient.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld teaches that the Torah tells us G-d created light, but does not say that he created darkness. Essentially, we were created with a clean slate, and at the very first opportunity Adam tarnished it. In our own way, we must each strive to create light instead of darkness.

When it comes down to it, we all make mistakes. Like Adam, we must learn from our mistakes and accept consequences. If we can learn to swallow our pride and own up to our mistakes, we may initially feel the sting, but in the end, it’s better than missing out on the entire Garden of Eden.


Shabbat Shalom
Mon, 11 December 2017 23 Kislev 5778