Monday, January 31, 2011

משׁפטים– Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18); Embracing the needy, the enemy and strangers among us.

The Text:

At this point in Torah, in the telling of the Jewish Exodus journey, the land of Egypt has been left behind, and the Jews have received the Ten Commandments.[1] Last week’s torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, goes on to list numerous laws that will govern the Jewish people. More specifically, through these laws, Jews are taught how to act towards issues regarding slavery, thievery, the needy, owning and borrowing livestock, bestiality, sorcery, crop sharing, and many more. We are shown the ancient laws of how to treat the enemy, the needy, and the stranger. Within Mishpatim it is stated, “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20) In many ways these laws seem to be stated to create order, and ensure that Jews are not taking advantage of the other, or the other's property including land and animals. If the only portion of Torah you were to ever read was parashat Mishpatim you may feel as if you were reading a series of legal documents concerning stealing your neighbor’s oxen. In many ways these series of laws seem inapplicable to the current way we live, but hidden among these laws are presently valuable ethical guidelines for treating the ‘vulnerable’ among us.

The Implication:

Who is not a stranger among us? Do we really live in a society where there is a clear norm, and a clear defiance of the norm we have created? What is normal, and who qualifies? I feel in so many ways individuals are constantly redefining what normal is because we feel like we just don’t fit in among everyone. Instead shouldn’t we question if ‘normal’ exists? Therefore aren’t we all strangers within any new situation? At one point we were the new comer to a community, family, or group of friends. In any new situation, we may each be a stranger in a strange land. When we venture somewhere new we want to be embraced and treated with respect and dignity, meaning we must remember to act similarly towards others entering a land we may already be familiar with as well. “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20) We must remember to not outcast the newcomer, since historically we ourselves were outcast for being ‘the other’. To me, the concept of being a stranger in a strange land is applicable to so many groups of people in both our local and global world. Some ‘strangers’ within the United States include: immigrants in their fight for citizenship; the glbt[2] community in their quest for gay rights; differently-abled people advocating towards inclusive disability rights; feminist women eradicating gender inequalities; black Americans struggle towards racial equality; and the fight of the American muslim community against prejudice due to post September 11th racial profiling. All spend countless time in their struggle overcoming unequal treatment in the search to be treated ‘normally’. Where do we learn how to treat our neighbors? What acts as our ethical and moral guide when we come into contact with challenges in our lives that cause us to take action in either a positive or negative way?

I currently work in the world’s largest gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender inclusive synagogue, CBST (Congregation Beit Simchat Torah). Recently a man called the office to question both our mission and where in the torah I personally felt that it was ok to be gay. At first I was unaware where the nature of his questions was coming from. However, his hatred quickly became clear to me as he shouted, “being gay is an abomination.” The most upsetting part of the conversation was trying to comprehend where this fellow Jew had learned his deep seeded hate towards the ‘strangers in his midst’. I’m reminded that Judaism teaches us that each individual is created in G-d’s image “betzelem eloheim”, and parshat Mishpatim teaches us by Jewish law the opposite of this man’s oppression, we are taught rather to treat the needy, enemy and stranger with indistinguishable equality to how we treat ourselves. As a Jew, I’m astounded as to where in the torah he found laws condemning the glbt community. The Jewish laws found in Exodus protect the stranger, enemy, and needy among us. Equally, whether we are in agreement or opposition by Jewish law we shall not treat those different from ourselves with anything other than compassion, and justice. And while I strongly disagree with the position my fellow Jew takes towards strangers among him, I am taught by torah to treat my enemy just as fairly as my neighbor, the stranger, and the needy. If only we all stuck to the golden rule: treat others as you want to be treated.

The Application:

In concept we know to act justly towards our fellow strangers, since we were once strangers, but what are the concrete things we can do in our lives to help the vulnerable and needy among us? Rabbi Jill Jacobs in her book There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition writes about the poor among us. Rabbi Jacobs defines poverty and the ways in which humanity act towards economic justice in the United States. Her powerful book shows how social justice is found within the torah, and how it already is applicable to our daily lives and social justice struggles. Rabbi Jacobs illustrates that each individual is a manifestation of G-d, therefore showing that by treating the needy among us repulsively, we are in turn treating G-d poorly. The idea is that G-d made each individual purposefully; we must not view the stranger as different from ourselves, neither should we view the needy as differently. While the poor may rely on other’s money and food to survive, we may each be outcast of some group based on our own ‘abnormalities’ based on race, religion, gender, class, and sexual identity. Parashat Mishpatim acts as a guide of how to treat others, for we were all once the needy, the enemy, and the stranger. There is no group of people who was not as some point the target of persecution.

Maybe the next time you see the needy among you don’t think of how you’re different but rather think of how you yourself could easily be among the needy, and in turn think of how to help rather than further isolate the stranger. Picture yourself in a land foreign to the one you know. We may not yet know the new territories we will encounter in our lives but we can remember to always respect and treat each other fairly whether it be the needy, enemy, stranger of friend among us.

Rabbi Jill Jacob's Vision.

[1] See last week’s post about commanded to rest.

[2] An acronym for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

יִתְרוֹ Exodus (18:1-20:23) -- Yitro- Commanded to rest

A more personal reflection…

This week the Torah talks about all of the commandments that the Jews receive from G-d at Mount Sinai. So this week I am choosing to reflect on why keeping Shabbat is one of the ten commandments and what this means for how we live our lives in the 21st century.

The Text:

“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days Adonai made heaven and earth and sea—and all that is in them—and then rested on the seventh day; therefore Adonai blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” (Exodus 20:8-13)

The Analysis:

Shabbat is declared as a day that shall be kept holy. The story of Bereshit (creation) is referenced in the commandment to show that God was able to construct the entire world in six days. Then on the seventh day he rested signifying the “rest” to be as important as the previous days of work. Why is it that having one day a week is so important to God? How is it that we often forget the importance of rest in our own lives?

Many people have tried to interpret, and re-interpret how Jews “keep Shabbat”. Every denomination within Judaism may have a different definition of work, and rest. It seems that people get lost in questions of what you can and cannot do on Shabbat. All are interpretations of Torah at different points throughout history. As new technology became available, Rabbis decided if the use of these advance divices qualified as work. They debated the use of light, computers, televisions, stoves, and heat. Another added layer is creation; since God didn’t “create” anything on Shabbat, those who observe Shabbat must cease from creation, or in Hebrew melakha.

Rather then a set list of rules, instead, shouldn’t the focus be what would make this day “holy”, as God has commanded us to do. What are times or environments in which we feel holy? Or spiritual? Are there activities that make us feel connected to the world around us as it is, instead of trying to change it? How can we just be in the world, at peace, whole, complete? Isn’t seeing how far we’ve come and how fruitful our work has been equally as important as doing the work itself?

I think Shabbat has the ability to mean something different for everyone. Just as the Rabbis have interpreted the torah and come up with halakha, or Jewish laws surrounding the practice of Shabbat, I think that individuals can interpret for themselves what would feel restful in their own lives. With the central thought being: since God is holy, and kept Shabbat, Shabbat is to be sanctified, and observing Shabbat in turn makes his people holy, and therefore closer to God.

For me, Shabbat is a day where I make space for reflection, rest, and community. When thinking about how keeping Shabbat as a reform Jew would be both manageable for me, while at the same time not isolating myself from friends and family, I choose to interpret the language of the Torah for myself. “You shall not do any work”, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy”. In this way I can create my own definitions of what feels like work, and what feels holy. When something new arises I try and decide whether it feels like work or rest, is the task something I enjoy, is creation involved, etc. In almost every possible task there can be room for debate. Transportation, money, light, hot water, cooking, and many more. Rabbis have spent time offering interpretations of text and creating laws of how Jews should approach tasks in order to be in compliance with observing Shabbat. Those who consider themselves to identify with a specific movement of Judaism may feel that their Shabbat observances be in tune with that of their movement, ie. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc. I think the lessons we can draw from the actual text itself is much more significant then getting lost in the different halakah and it’s interpretations, where we may lose the goal of Shabbat all together.

The most important part is making Shabbat feel like a day that is separated from all other days of the week. Where the focus of the entire day is holiness, and presence with the world as it currently is. By eliminating work on Shabbat I never feel I have to be anywhere but where I am in that moment. Shabbat has had only a positive impact on my life thus far, I feel as if I’ve given myself the gift of time. When we are able to connect with each other, share holy space, and allow ourselves time in turn we remember what it is to be a holy people.

With all that we have available at our fingertips now, it is easy to forget the importance of spending time with our family, friends, and ourselves. Nowadays people are constantly connected to the larger world; we may forget what it is like to simply take in the world around us, by being outside, engaging in discussions, or reading something we enjoy. Instead we are constantly distracting ourselves from being fully present in our lives with gadgets and rushing from one thing to the next. Let Shabbat be a reminder to not just let the world pass you by but take time to remember what makes your world holy. Who are the people, and what are the things that you enjoy most? Are you making time for these people and things in your life? This upcoming Shabbat take a few hours to unplug, unwind and be present with people and the world without multitasking. Giving your full attention to something signifies that you find it important, why not devote your importance to the people/ things you care about? For those of you who celebrate Shabbat weekly, or once in awhile, what is the impact you feel it has on your life?

There has been a lot of recent talk about people being too connected to our appliances/ internet/ social media and substituting real interactions with our online interactions…

Read more….

Not paying attention even to our emails:

Or our relationships:

Could we be sacrificing our lives when we drive while distracted?

Or causing serious mental health issues by spending excessive time on the web:,8599,2008234,00.html

Some reading/ resources on Shabbat…

Books about Shabbat:

Lecture at JTS Thursday February 17th.

What to do about reading an e-book on Shabbat:

Sabbath Manifesto, keeping Shabbat made easy...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

ּבשלח (Exodus 13:17-17:16) B'shalach- Are Miracles always good?

The Text:
This week's Torah portion highlights the miracles that occur as the Jews leave the land of Egypt. Mainly, this miracle refers to Moses parting the red sea in order for the Jews to safely cross out of Egypt. We often use the word miracle when taking about something unexplainable, or supernatural. As my niece cited "we use (the word) miracle when we talk about hope." What she meant by this is that we pray for miracles, hope, change; all positive occurrences. Is the word miracle ever used to highlight a negative change? Or, when something negative happens and since we view it as "for the best" we say it is a miracle? This miracle, which assists in the final step of the Jews exodus, is sung about at every Friday night Shabbat service. When we sing the prayer Mi Chamocha, we say, "Who is like you Eternal one, among the Gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?" As Jewish communities sing the Mi Chamocha they do so to show praise for a God that performs amazing, and unexplainable miracles that we can only continue to hope will happen in our lives. Some people spend their entire lives waiting for a miracle or the near impossible to occur. When we sing this prayer we are showing that we believe in God's ability to perform these miracles. What isn’t talked about in this particular miracle is that after the red sea is closed thousands of Egyptians drowned. Do we turn an eye to these Egyptian murders because their deaths 'miraculously' saved the Jewish people? While we are taught 'you shall not kill', does this not apply when perhaps the death itself is 'for the best'? Or when it is in self-defense?

The Implication:
There are very few "miracles" that occur in our lives anymore. A miracle is more than a happy occasion; it is trying to explain the unexplainable. Something that is still miraculous in our lives is the creation of people. Scientifically we know how cells multiply and how babies come to be as growing organisms but the fact is that the creation of human life is still miraculous. As is the body's ability to heal itself. This week I found myself in conversation with a friend in medical school who is currently doing an ob/ gyn rotation where seeing the ‘miracle of life’ is a daily occurrence. However, this particular conversation was different. This week a young pregnant patient of his lost her baby at the end of her second trimester. In other words, if the baby had been born s/he would have had a high chance of survival at this stage. While miscarriages occur statistically with some frequency, when it is personal, and you're dealing with people experiencing this loss first hand it is nothing but tragic. There is an association with new life of being a time of happiness and joy. But, when this expected happiness is coupled with tragedy we often find ourselves at a loss of how to react. However, what if this loss is also a miracle? What if it is in some ways ‘for the best’? What if there were abnormalities in the fetus which would have caused a life of hardship? How do we psychologically come to terms with the loss of something we never had or got to experience? How do we wrestle with this unexplainable loss? How do we as a community act in a supportive way to those who have experienced pregnancy loss? As we see in this weeks Torah portion sometimes miracles are intertwined with extremes, and result in both positive and negative outcomes. Do we then redefine the term

The Application:

Whether it be a miracle or a loss we turn to our community for support in times of need. We share stories, gather for meals, and remind ourselves that it is people who will always be there. In our technological age it is easy to forget that when it matters most we rely on our family, and friendships. For those experiencing a life changing moment it is imperative to be able to be embraced by a caring community. Whether you're praying for a miracle or have either experienced a health related miracle or loss, it is important to figure out ways you can ask for what you need from those around you. Additionally, while being in need may not be something currently pertinent to your life, have you thought about how to be available to those you care about who may currently or in the future face such challenging times? Do you reflect on how to be a good listener, and express appropriate empathy? As well as figuring out when to step up and lend a helping hand so that it isn’t up to one person to bear the full burden after something monumental in their lives has happened? Sometimes our cards of life are dealt and we have to figure out how we will respond to situations which may arise in our own and others’ lives. What if we were to think of how we would react to such a tragedy as if were our own, would this strengthen our ability to feel empathy. Whether it be a miracle or a loss that we will have to deal with throughout our lives it is up to us to figure out how to be grateful for what we have and how to be ready for future trials. There are different organizations who have done the work of figuring out how to help people be supportive to their friends and family in need even regarding unthinkable topics such as pregnancy loss, read resources below. Click for other related posts on loss or how to be supportive.

Take a minute to think about how fragile our lives are and what miracles you are currently praying/ hoping for. How could you be better supported? How can you better help those around you? Do those you care about know that you are there for them? Are we paying attention and remembering to be grateful for the miracles which occur in our own lives?

A Jewish response to helping clergy and community respond to pregnancy loss that hits close to home
My cousin has documented the life of her one year old Mazzy in the best blog I've ever seen-
Velveteen rabbi poems about miscarriage
Expecting Adam - A great read, a book about one womans supernatural experience when carrying a baby with down syndrome

Sunday, January 9, 2011

וארא– בא –– (Exodus 6:2-13:16) Va-eira and Bo: Divine Power vs. Enduring Leadership

The Text:
The past two week’s torah portions Parshat Va-eira, and Parshat Bo speak of the ten plagues that G-d brought down upon Egypt in order to free the people of Israel. The story of freeing the Jews from Egypt is the story that we tell on the holiday of Passover. G-d speaks directly with Moses instructing him to ask Pharoah to “Let my people go that they may worship me.” G-d shows his power through the ten plagues (blood, frogs, lice, insects, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and death of the first born) that are brought upon the land of Egypt. Whether you know the story from the movie, “The Prince of Egypt”, or the text itself the idea is the same; the Jewish people were enslaved and being mistreated, and Moses stood up to Pharoah and threatened him to “let my people go” or there would be consequences brought to the Egyptians. Moses acts as a leader, and a messenger of G-d’s divine power.

And say to him, " יהוח the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you (Pharoah) to say, 'Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness.' (Exodus 7:16)

The Implication:
This past Friday I was at Shabbat dinner where the conversation turned into an intense debate. The topic: what do we do about countries without democratic governments. Countries whose citizens may be suffering human rights violations, governments that operate in a way in which information is censored, and where the government has the power, vs. the people.

The main question: whose job is it to help? 'Fix' their problems? Who decides if the way in which they govern is right or wrong? Is the difference simply ideological, or do we have a responsibility to do something? In theory, the United States votes leaders into power who represent the majority of people’s opinions to make decisions in our government. Individuals have a say and a sense of empowerment. Ultimately our leaders are responsible to the people. Whereas in many nations around the world, including many developing nations, this is not the case, leaders tell their citizens what they can and cannot do; how they live, what knowledge they have access to, etc.

In Egypt pharaoh was mistreating a group of people, and God stepped in. In this case, the solution was to move the Jewish people (who were enslaved) out of the land of Egypt. The question that kept arising in our debate was: is it the job of the U.S. to intervene? Do we act as God and tell other countries how to act in the ‘right way’ when we see injustice? Do we rescue refugees? Or, do we say 'not our problem', and turn a blind eye? What is our role? Do we have a larger global responsibility to save people whose own countries and government systems are not protecting its’ citizens? How do we take the lessons we learn from Parashat Va-eira and Bo into our current struggles of international politics?

The Application:
The United States has power and ability, does this mean are at liberty to act in a God like fashion, impose our own democratic views onto others? Or, do we as God did act through creating leaders like Moses in countries who may be in need of assistance? God didn’t strike without clearly outlining to Pharoah, the leader of the Egyptians about what would happen. God used Moses as a leader, and instructed him how to stand up to the authority of Pharoah and explain the consequences if the Jewish people weren’t treated in the way they should be. Maybe the solution is that we build leadership among our neighbors citizens so that they have the sense of empowerment that Moses did.

We read of so many instances of injustice, and often are saddened and unsure of what we can do to help. The task of what to do may be overwhelming, and in turn, we do nothing but watch as more tragedies unfold. In many ways, we are useless when it comes to intervening in others’ lands. Not our place, against international laws, etc. Instead, we do very little, causing the global community a disservice by turning a blind eye. It’s not an easy battle but we cannot do nothing because the task itself is overwhelming. If we ourselves can not do the activist work needed, there are organizations who are building leaders, and providing aid that are in need of funding. Maybe Torah shows us that our responsibility is not to stand idly by when we see injustice, but to step in, take charge, and build power. We can become informed leaders, speak out, and fund those already doing this work.

As Martin Luther King Jr. day approaches we are reminded of how great leaders have brought about change in this country. May we all strive to be leaders in our own lives, regardless of how large the task, and may we find ways to help others in our global community to empower themselves.

Recent materials/ organizations inspiring this reflection…..

American Jewish World Service
There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition by: Rabbi Jill Jacobs
A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by: Samantha Powers
Little Bee by: Chris Cleave

More tackling torah posts about leadership and power.