Thursday, December 30, 2010

ויחי – שמות -- Va-Y'chi (Genesis 47:28-50:26) through Sh'mot (Exodus 1:1-6:1) Endings which lead to righteous beginnings...

A preface: I have loved taking the time to reflect and blog so far, but I’m hoping you, the reader will start to engage in discussion more! So, if you’re enjoying reading, please comment so I can start to be accountable to readers. That way I can learn what you think too!

The Text:
As we near the secular new year of 2011, I’ve been thinking a lot about endings and beginnings. Recently in reading the Torah, we ended the book of Genesis, and began the next book, Exodus, last week. A lot happens in this transition. In Parshat Va-y’chi at the end of the book of Genesis we expierence the loss of the Jewish forefather Jacob (or Israel see: Honoring our names matters). But, the torah doesn’t just state in one line Jacob died as it does with many other previous deaths. Instead, the entire Parshat of Va-y’chi speaks about both blessings and preparations for Jacob’s imminent death. His wishes are respected, honored, and sacred.

At the beginning of Exodus, (a book that deals with the Journey of the Jewish people from Egypt to the promised land) the first Parashat is Sh’mot. Here, we begin to hear the story of the Jews as slaves in the land of Egypt. In fear that the Jewish people are growing in strength, Pharoah orders that the midwives kill all Jewish male babies at birth. Sh’mot recounts the story from the birth of Moses, through his childhood, his flee from Egypt, speaking to G-d at the burning bush, and his eventual return to Egypt to free the people of Israel.

Together, Va-y’chi and Sh’mot revolve around themes of death, birth, and community support. In the story of Jacob his community engages with the wishes he has in his final days, and in Sh’mot much of the community is involved in sparing Moses’s life and providing opportunities to set him up for successful leadership.

The Implication:
Last week I attended services at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City, where Rabbi Felicia Sol spoke about Parshat Sh’mot. She spoke of the actions that the midwives Shiphrah and Puah took in saving the lives of the Jewish male babies. She spoke of how the midwives acted out of righteousness. Rabbi Sol related this action of righteousness to the current event of the passing by the House and Senate of a bill that would repeal the actions of DADT (don’t ask don’t tell) , which now would allow gay and lesbian US soldiers to be open about their sexual identify in the military. She spoke of the midwives being either in awe of or in fear of G-d. Showing that G-d is so powerful that the midwives knew by not acting in a way which was right they themselves would suffer consequences.

“The midwives, fearing G-d, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:17)

What does this lesson of righteousness mean? Do we often act in the “right” way? People often struggle with what is right. However, I think even harder is to make these actions of righteousness a priority in our lives. We may know something is the “right” thing to do, but may do absolutely nothing about it. How do we get past this step? Not to say there aren’t real reasons holding us back from stepping up. We may be rushing to an important meeting, or fear for our own safety in certain situations. When we see an elderly person crossing the street how many of us offer a helping hand? Do we reach out to those we know may be struggling, or do we get preoccupied with our own lives? Do we even have the time to be righteous anymore?

Parashat Sh’mot teaches us how to act in a way that is righteous, but how do we relate that to the themes of life and death, beginnings, and endings, as we see in these two recent Parsha’s. What is our own individual ability, and/or responsibility to help a member of our community who we may see struggling with life, death, and everything in between? When life is ending what is it that we remember? How does thinking about mortality help us align the way in which we live our lives, the things we value, and how to act with righteousness above all else.

Do we have a communal responsibility to act in the “right” way towards those dealing with depression, illness, or the mourners among us?

The Application:
While we are busy thinking of new year and a new beginning in our lives, people often make resolutions of how they want to improve. Maybe this is the year you’ll learn something you’ve wondered about for awhile, maybe you’ll make more time to eat right, exercise, call your grandmother, or maybe you’ll start listening to your instinct about what is right and important in your life. Maybe your priority is career advancement, or culinary school. Any or all of those things don’t change the fact that you can act with righteousness towards everything in your life.

Depression, death, illness are all topics we often avoid and struggle in dealing with as they are not openly talked about. When Jacob was dying, his son Joseph did everything his father asked for even after Jacob was gone because it was the right thing to do. Maybe doing the right thing for the ill, and mourners among us is as simple as asking for what is needed or doing things and offering even when nothing was asked of you. Often we can identify what is needed, and right but we just have too many other things going on to offer support. Remember that our situations can change in an instant and while we may not be ill or mourning today, tomorrow may be different. We each need the ongoing support of community in these moments and it is up to each individual to act in a righteous way in assisting those who currently need help in their community .

Those who are sick, depressed, or in mourning may feel shame around their situation but creating opportunities where we act ‘with intentional righteousness’ will cause a chain reaction for others to follow suit. Don’t just do things because they are popular do things because they are the right thing to do. Showing communal support when someone is upset is just as or even more important as showing support on happy occasions. It may not be easy, but often stepping up is the right thing to do.

Some resources and giving credit where credit is due:

A recent New York Times article about Jewish Communal caring for the dead
Credit to B’nai Jeshurun, as Rabbi Sol’s comments inspired me to think more about righteousness
92nd Street Y offers group discussions for recent mourners

What do you think about acting with righteousness and remembering those in our community who are struggling?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

ויגש-- Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)- Reconciling outwardly and within.

The text:
In this week's torah portion, Vayigash, we learn of Joseph’s reconciliation with his family. Joseph, one of Jacob’s 12 sons, was sold into slavery by his brother’s because of their jealousy of how their father Jacob favored Joseph. Joseph is able to forgive his brothers for the sake of creating a united family, which at this point encompasses ‘all the children of Israel.’

Instead of faulting his brothers, Joseph believes that g-d needed to have him endure the hardships caused at his brothers' hands in order to ensure the people of Israel's survival. Joseph’s perspective with time allows him to believe that things happen for a reason.[1]

“ I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold to Eqypt; and now, don’t be troubled, don’t be chagrined because you sold me here, for it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” (Genesis 45:5)

Joseph shows incredible resilience in his ability to look beyond the ways in which he was mistreated and is able to start anew. Joseph is an inspirational figure who helps us to understand sometimes we cannot be caught up in fault, but rather it may be about our ability to move forward and see the bigger picture.

The implication:
I have often wondered why as Jews, we read the Torah every single year, and why people study the Torah as intensely as they do. While this may not be the most comprehensive answer, I think that each time the Torah is read we bring a different perspective to our reading of Torah. Our perspective varies and is shaped by current events in our lives, and by how we can apply the teachings and lessons of the torah to our personal situations. The stories of the torah have the ability to be both historic for the Jewish people and simultaneously relate to the modern human experience.

What are the relationships that need repair in your life? How do we learn from Joseph’s tribulations about how to overlook past wrongdoings and move forward for the sake of our family, community, and friendships? While I read Joseph’s story it becomes clear to me that Joseph knew that he was wronged but he didn't let it matter. The brothers additionally knew that they should be asking for forgiveness, and over time they regretted treating Joseph in the way they did because it only caused further strife and guilt in their lives.

It is clear to see from Joseph’s actions that he is the real hero by acting with humility in his familial situation. Joseph could easily have turned his brothers away to fend for themselves while their people were faced with famine. Instead, Joseph shared his good fortune and hard work in order to further the Jewish people, leaving no punishment for those that had wronged him except for their own self-imposed guilt. When we are wrong, admitting that we are wrong allows us to grow from our mistakes. But, there are also the times when we may not have done anything wrong at all. Others' perceptions may make it impossible to do anything without being criticized. Yet we must still act in a mature way as Joseph did, in order to move forward.

Torah is re-read each year as a piece of text may apply differently to your life, dependent on circumstances you currently find yourself in. The text may have the ability to re-teach us lessons in every reading. This year I take it personally in challenges I face. Do I have the ability like Joseph does to forgive others' harmful actions? If I know I am doing the right thing, am I able to look towards the bigger picture, forgetting what has been done for the sake of forging a solid front going forward? Joseph had a special relationship with his father; do people try to harm us out of their own jealousy and insecurities? Is there anything we can do to change someone else’s perceptions? While we may not be able to change our outside world, how do we go about making changes for ourselves?

The application:
Earlier posts refer to why our actions matter, and how we can shape them and have our own control.

Sometimes we need to reflect on our own lives and what we can do to fix relationships that may need repair. As Joseph found, sometimes it is better when looking at the bigger picture to stand up and be the bigger person regardless of the circumstances.

Some ways in which we may be able to do this is by seeking supportive advice either among our friends and family or, if need be, professionally. Other ways can be making time for yourself to reflect, write or meditate. And lastly we must do the challenging work of reaching out and communicating to those relationships in need of repair. Regardless of the circumstances this is often the hardest part of all, either admitting wrongdoing and asking for forgiveness, confronting those who have hurt you, or figuring out how to as Joseph did reconcile without blame. The goal is to reflect in a way that is most productive for yourself, so that you feel you can move forward towards repair.

One such method I’ve had the ability to try is the Jewish ritual practice of Mussar, “a spiritual perspective and also to a discipline of transformative practices… it shines light on the causes of suffering and shows us how to realize our highest spiritual potential, including an everyday experience infused with happiness, trust, and love.” [2] Mussar is an everyday jewish ritual that allows one to be in a constant state of reflection. As Joseph was able to do, may we too be able to reflect and move forward in our conflicts towards reconciliation.

As always here are some resources or organizations that can help you find the ability to reflect in your own life. - Mussar Institute Mussar Leadership - Jewish Meditation Center, Brooklyn

[1] This text lends itself to common cliché phrases we use repeatedly. I apologize in advance.

[2] Morinis, Alan. Everyday Holiness, The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, pg. 8.

Monday, December 6, 2010

זכריה-- Zechariah (4:6); Intentional Belief

The Text:
The narrative of Joseph’s dream interpretations continues in this week’s Parshat, or Torah portion, Mikeitz. However, on a whim, I am going to switch and reflect on one line from this week’s Haftorah portion, Zechariah.[1]

This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit—said the LORD of Hosts. Whoever you are, O great mountain in the path of Zerubbabel, turn into level ground! For he shall produce that excellent stone; it shall be greeted with shouts of ‘Beautiful! Beautiful!’” (Zechariah 4:6-7)

While I grew up singing this line of Zechariah in Debbie Friedman’s popular song, ‘Not by Might, Not by Power’, I never before thought of what the line may imply.

Not by Might, Not by Power (Debbie Friedman)
(lyrics from Zechariah 4:6)
Chorus: Not by might, and not by power
But by spirit alone
Shall we all live in peace.

The children sing
The children dream
And their tears may fall
But we'll hear them call
And another song will rise (3x). Chorus.

The Implication:
The Zechariah quote itself implies, that by sheer belief, spirituality, and connection we will accomplish great things. I think in order to understand the quote we need to understand what is it that we believe in. These are questions that don’t necessarily have clear-cut simple answers. Why do we pray, or what is it that we are praying for? Why do we join to pray as spiritual communities? How do we cultivate the ‘spirit’ that is being referred to?

While in the context of Zechariah, the idea is that our belief in G-d will be enough to create what is needed. However, belief itself does not say anything without intention, or in Hebrew, Kavanah. Kavanah can be translated to mean intention or with intentionality. Kavanah also has a deeper meaning. Kavanah means actions with meaning behind them, intention of the heart, or as Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “Awareness of symbolic meaning is awareness of a specific idea; kavanah is awareness of an ineffable situation.” What is it that we believe in enough to act with full Kavanah? Or, is it that by acting with true Kavanah we are growing as spiritual communities?

Power without good intentions can be destructive. This is why we must reflect and focus on the intentions behind our beliefs. If we are intentional about our spirituality, and our intention is to do good, then we can funnel power to achieve our shared dreams towards a better world.

This week, in Jewish history we celebrate Chanukah. Chanukah is a holiday that commemorates a military victory for the Jewish rebel army the Maccabees. The Chanukah story highlights two important pieces of history. One, a miracle occurred when oil that was meant to last for only one day lasted for eight. The second is that an army, which should have been defeated, outsmarted their opponents.

As we see in the text of Zechariah, and in the story of Chanukah, both intention and hope are needed for achieving spirit. In Zechariah it is through full belief, with Kavanah, in G-d that will lead to change. The Maccabees had both faith in themselves and intentionally strategized towards victory. What good is hope without acting intentionally? Why are we spiritual? What is it that we hope will happen? Do miracles happen often enough that we can rely on just our hope, or must we also include intentional actions? While we can’t build power without shared hope, we also can’t be powerful with just the belief that we can be. We have to be willing to give our all to our beliefs. That is how I interpret Kavanah, not just as good intention, or intention with meaning behind it, but as something you believe in so much that when you ‘pray with Kavanah’ you must put your whole self into that belief, because failing to do so would make it meaningless.

The Application:
How do we act intentionally? How do we funnel our beliefs to make intentional change? Kavanah is applicable to both large and small-scale issues within our lives. In parshat Vayeishev I examined how Tamar and Joseph mapped out power within their own lives, and acted as individuals. Spirituality is more of a shared experience of faith, using Kavanah to shift power, and gaining communal spirit.

Communities that come together in intentional ways around their shared beliefs enact change. They do not enact change by might, or power alone, but instead by their spirit, their intentional beliefs.

Community Organizing is successful by bringing people together around their shared beliefs, values and towards intentional, achievable goals. Community Organizers work by bringing individuals together, researching community issues, and building campaigns around a groups' own self-interests. Whether it be students fighting to end a genocide in Darfur, affordable health care, creating parent-teacher home visits to better understand local student needs (a recent campaign victory of my friend Dan Lesser), all rely on Kavanah, which builds community power and thereby spirit.

There are faith-based organizations doing community organizing work all over the country. Here are just some of the Jewish organizations whose community organizing work I’m inspired by:

Jewish Organizing Initiative
epair the World
American Jewish World Service
Jewish Funds for Justice
Jews For Racial and Economic Justice
Just Congregations

Jewish Community Relations Council

May you find time to reflect on both Kavanah, and your own beliefs this Chanukah.
And, if you are able, help in supporting organizations that are working towards creating change you believe in.

[1] This quote was brought to my attention by Rabbi Andy Vogel’s weekly torah reflections. Rabbi Vogel is the Rabbi at Temple Sinai of Brookline, where I served as the Youth Educator. Rabbi Vogel is a wonderful mentor of mine.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

וישב - Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1- 40:23); Conquering Your Own Dreams

The Text:
This week’s parsha deals with overall themes of being an outsider, seduction, power struggles, envy, being powerless, and taking actions to be noticed. The parsha focuses on Joseph and Tamar’s stories this week of both dreams, and controlling your own destiny. Joseph is not afraid to be himself and shares the dreams he has with his family, resulting in his brothers’ jealousy as the favored child of Israel, and selling him to the Ishmalites, causing him to be outcast. He winds up in Egypt where he must devise his own plan and regain his power.

Additionally Tamar, Judah’s (one of Joseph’s brothers) daughter-in-law becomes a young widow when Judah’s son Er and then Onan die for being wicked in the sight of Adonai. Judah refusing to lose another son, forces Tamar to go to her father’s house and remain a widow. Tamar becomes outcast for her status as a widow. Determined to have a child, and refusing to be outcast, Tamar takes matters into her own hands by dressing as a prostitute and sleeping with her father-in-law Judah. In order to prove that this act occurred she asked for Judah’s unique material positions signifying his identity. (Genesis 38:18) “He asked, ‘What sort of pledge should I give you?’ She then said, ‘Your signet seal, your cord, and the staff in your hand.’ So he gave [them] to her and coupled with her – and she became pregnant by him.”

The Implication:
What do we do to both understand and control power? Where the power is, and what are the tools at our disposal to shape our own situations/ destiny in relation to power? Both Joseph and Tamar were stripped of their power and status and had to find their own means of regaining their dreams/ destiny again. Tamar proves to Judah through evidence that he has impregnated her, and that he had placed her in a compromising position that forced her to seduce him in order to create offspring. Joseph, imprisoned in Egypt, interprets two dreams of pharaoh’s guards, beginning to regain his status and hope towards freedom by encouraging the guards to speak kindly of Joseph to the Pharaoh.

What are the situations in your life where you feel powerless? What are the actions you can take towards completing your own dreams, and subtly challenging those that hold the power? Similarly to Joseph and Tamar, we too are often challenged or thrown off course in our lives. Reaching a dream is attainable but does not necessarily come easy. We can apply the examples set by Joseph and Tamar as we figure out how to navigate the challenges set before us. Our dreams fulfilled are that much more rewarding when we have fought to attain them.

What are the dreams you have, and who are those in power in your own life? Just as Tamar and Joseph did, we must map out who the key players are in our lives and who stands in our way of obtaining our dreams/ destiny. Once we know who, we must engage in creating a plan towards our goals. This may involve convincing those in power, or proving something of ourselves through our actions, and with evidence, as Tamar did. Do you act in a way that is admirable? Do you barely get a job done, or do you constantly go above and beyond? Once you have achieved your own power, do you keep it for yourself or help those in need to improve their own situations?

While we may be able to map out who, and how ideally to further ourselves in achieving our dreams, the hardest part may be taking the step and acting on our plans. Often the hardest challenge we may face in accomplishing our own dreams may be self-imposed fear. It may not be the external factors at all. Both Joseph and Tamar acted with bravery in shaping their own futures.

The Application:
Once we’ve mapped out where the power is in the situations we find ourselves in, how do we figure out the actions we will take to create plans to fulfill our dreams or regain power we may have lost or are looking to have. Basically, what do we do about it?

Feeling like an outsider or powerless in your own situation can be extremely difficult. How do we figure out where to turn? Often we must reflect on where we are, and where we are looking to go. Then we must work up the courage to challenge that which makes us feel powerless, or the hiccup that has set us back on the course towards our dreams.

Figure out a strategy to take on the people who have made you feel powerless, chart a course towards your goals, use your actions to build your own status. Tamar became respected for her brave actions that challenged her situation, and she changed her own destiny. Joseph shifted the minds of those in a position of power towards him, regaining control of power in his own life.

Each person’s dreams and the challenges that interfere are different making it hard to pinpoint where to turn. You may be at a turning point in your life, you may feel powerless, or you may feel in control of your destiny, regardless of your current position there are always ongoing dreams we create for ourselves and challenges that we are overcoming. Realizing our own power and ways in which we can control and plan our futures makes us the creators of our own destiny. Make a plan, overcome the fear and take on the challenge head on of regaining your own power.

While you work to create your own plan and shape your destiny, there are organizations that can help the truly powerless among us, those that may be affected by homelessness, experiencing a loss, unemployment, or the current economic downturn. Here are some Jewish organizations doing the work of helping people find the resources they need, if you know someone in your life that is in need of help please share:

Trying to figure out what your dream is? PBS explores this question:

Sunday, November 21, 2010

וישלח–– Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4- 36:43); Honoring Our Names Matters

The Text:
This week’s parsha, Vayishlach, includes a life-transforming event for Jacob. Jacob receives a new name of ‘Israel’. This renaming comes about from a specific event that Jacob engages in: wrestling with “an angel”.

Jacob, never shying from a challenge, receives his new title as a blessing. The angel says, (Genesis 32:29) “No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel,” said the other, “for you have struggled with God and with human beings, and you have prevailed.”

The new name Israel signifies “struggle with the divine”, which Jacob not only conquered in his recent wrestling but additionally in his past life challenges and experiences.

The Implication:
Jacob’s struggle resulting in the blessing of a new name causes me to question names. Names can be given, acquired or created. Additionally names or titles can be gained to signify the work we have done. Our actions can either affirm or challenge others’ perceptions of who we are. Our actions can also further or diminish the validity of our given, acquired, or gained names/ titles.

When thinking about where our names come from I am reminded of a famous poem by Zelda, called “Each of us has a name.”

Each of us has a name
Given us by god,
And given us by our father and mother.

Each of us has a name
Given us by the way we stand,
Our way of smiling,
And the clothes we wear.

People perceive others based on the way that they portray themselves. Every action we take represents how we want to be perceived. We are constantly representing ourselves.

Do you do everything with a smile or a scowl? How do you treat others? When you are faced with conflict, how do you react? You continually are creating an evolving name for yourself.

There are titles that you can acquire from your choices, and your studies. You may have a title from your relationships to other people, such as someone’s partner, child, parent, etc. There are titles you can earn through study or career such as doctor, lawyer, educator, consultant, etc. All are representative of who you are and all act in a way where your name may be either honored or tarnished depending on your actions or the actions of others who you are in relation to your name.

When people describe you to strangers, what do they say? What are the adjectives added to your name, which gives people a sense of what type of person you are. How we act can change others perceptions of us. Do we act with kindness or bitterness?

The best part of our acquired titles is that we get to control them. We are the catalyst that people respond to. When we act positively with optimism, when we treat others justly, when we meet challenges head on as Jacob did, when we “put our best foot forward” that is when we act as a blessing.

When Jacob challenged the angel, he was rewarded with a name that described his actions, so others would know him as the one who overcame the challenges set before him. Are the actions you take appropriate representations of who you are and how you want to be perceived by others?

The Application:
November 20th was national Transgender Day Of Remembrance. It is an event where transgender individuals and allies gather to remember those lives lost to violence in the past year due to hatred against people expressing their gender variant identity. Names are read, lives are remembered, and hope is shared for future violence to end.

Every person controls and decides who they are and how they want to be perceived. This is the same for transgender individuals. Each of us have different identities. We should be able to chose what those identities are, and how we want to express ourselves.

In the same way that Jacob was given a new name, someone undergoing a gender change may chose a name that they feel is better representative of who they are.

People should both strive to, and be able to be their fullest selves at all times. I hope that one day we can all live in a world where people are not treated poorly simply because of the name and identity they have chosen and that is the best representation of the person they are.

We all should be held accountable by our names for how we represent ourselves. Simply, all people want to be respected for who they are, and want to live in the world where they are comfortable with the name they have created for themselves, without fear of bullying or violence towards them. When people react in a negative way towards others, they are only tarnishing their own name.

If we are each held accountable and responsible for our own actions then we should take time to reflect on how others may be perceiving us. If you took a moment to think about what others would say about you, do you think you would like what you hear? Are there ways in which you can continue to work towards making your name the most representative of the best person you want to be? How are you treating others? Is it the way you would want to be treated?

By focusing more on how we can honor our own name by acting in a meaningful way that is representative of the best person we can be, we will be striving to create a world where we are treating people the way we want to be treated. We will be able to gain the titles that fully represent ourselves and we will honor those names or titles we have already achieved and created for ourselves. And we too will be a blessing.

A prayer for those who have been harmed for simply being themselves….

For Trans Day of Remembrance
God, full of mercy, bless the souls of all who are in our hearts on this Transgender Day of Remembrance. We call to mind today young and old, of every race, faith, and gender experience who have died by violence. We remember those who have died because they would not hide, or did not pass, or did pass, or stood too proud. Today we name them: the reluctant activist, the fiery hurler of heels, the warrior for quiet truth, the one whom no one really knew. As many as we can name, there are thousands more whom we cannot, and for whom no Kaddish may have been said. We mourn their senseless deaths, and give thanks for their lives, for their teachings, and for the brief glow of each holy flame. We pray for the strength to carry on their legacy of vision, bravery, and love. And as we remember them, we remember with them the thousands more who have taken their own lives. We pray for resolve to root out the injustice, ignorance, and cruelty that grow despair. We pray, God, that those who perpetrate hate and violence will speedily come to understand that Your creation has many faces, many genders, and many holy expressions.

Blessed are they who have allowed their divine image to shine in the world. Blessed are You, God, in whom no light is extinguished.
Rabbi Reuben Zellman

Related Links:

My youtube video response to the recent lgbtq bullying and resulting suicides

What Keshet has to say about Transgender Day of Remembrance and resources!, Jewish resources for Trans Individuals and allies

Ingrid Michaelson’s song “Breakable”, a song that speaks to me about fragility of life