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.