Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Struggling with Silence-- Sh'mini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)

In our lives:
Sometimes we are hit close to home by sudden tragedies in our lives. Whether hearing of a sudden illness or a tragic death often we are left searching for answers to questions that are unexplainable. Tragedy is hard to comprehend, and sometime we simply do not have answers. We struggle with finding words to try to comfort the mourner. And truthfully there is nothing we can say to make the pain of such losses disappear. Think of a time when you learned of tragic news in your own life or in the life of someone you are close with. How did you react? Were you even able to respond?

I recently learned of a college classmate of mine who was tragically killed along with her husband and mother-in-law this past summer in a head on collision. Their 4-month-old daughter survived the crash. This young woman was bright, and always bubbly. Right after college, she became a wife, and then a new mother. She was a beautiful soul on the inside and out. As I reflect on her death, it is hard to comprehend both because of how untimely it is, and because of her inherently good nature.

One of the reasons religion appeals to people is because sometimes as we search for answers we draw on stories found in religion for the ability to explain the unexplainable. While they may not offer explanations, these stories can show us examples of circumstances where we can learn about ourselves through understanding the struggles of our ancestors. We may seek these stories to provide cultural/ spiritual guidance for how to live a fulfilling life. The stories of Torah can provide a feeling of being linked to a larger past and current community as people look for a shared experience.

I learned a great deal from my friend Nabilah at Brandeis. She was a practicing Muslim, and her family was originally from Bangladesh. As a student, I know that she sometimes struggled with people’s perceptions of her nationality and religion. We talked about both cultural and religious similarities and differences between American-Jews, and Muslim-Americans.

Nabilah writes in her blog, “What's more interesting is that God has asked us to interpret the Qur’an on our own to be able to guide our own lives. I mean how much more leeway can you get from a religion than that?” Nabilah Khan, (July 11, 2007)

Nabilah searched for answers by seeking her own interpretations of the Qur’an. This week I turn to torah portion, Sh’mini to seek answers for myself to explain the loss of a beautiful, questioning soul.

From the source:
Sh’mini teaches of the power and ability of G-d for both good and evil. We see G-d instantly take the lives of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu because they disobeyed him. Moses struggles with how to comfort his brother Aaron. These two deaths act as a lesson for the Jewish people to practice the laws set upon them by G-d. While Moses does not understand the extreme action that G-d took in taking these young lives he finds it challenging to elicit a response both as a leader and a brother in order to help Aaron. Aaron has no response for Moses's comforting words, as the text says, vayidom Aharon (and Aaron was silent).

In Judaism we use ritual practices to provide comfort to the bereaved. The hardest thing is to continue living after experiencing the sudden death of a loved one. The mourner is lost not knowing where to turn, what to say, how to act, and how to continue going about our daily lives. In Judaism, it is customary to sit Shiva for seven days of mourning after a death. Shiva is communal, and the mourners are cared for by their community. It is also customary to sit in silence until the mourner talks. This is because we cannot possibly offer any words that would explain the loss or pain one feels in mourning. Silence is the only sense we can make of tragic events. Sometimes there are no words of explanation, just a continual search for meaning. As we see in Sh’mini Aaron’s silence is profound. This reaction teaches us that silence is an appropriate response for traumatic events which we cannot find answers for. Our shock and silence speaks louder than words ever could.

Further reading: "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." By Rabbi Harold Kushner

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Vayikra and Tzav: The search for righteousness through sacrifice.

In Our Lives:
Sacrifice. What does the word even mean? In today’s definition, is a sacrifice more similar to a compromise or a selfless act of justice? What do we ‘sacrifice’ these days? We may find giving up our most valuable possessions of our time, food, money, goals, or our own needs may feel sacrificial. If this is the case, are sacrifices even quantifiable?

When it comes to self-sacrifice there are those who keep everything to themselves and look out for only his/her self. Then there are those who are too giving to the extreme that they forget even their own needs. Both for the self-centric and the extreme giver, I often think we need guidelines for how to maintain a healthy balance of the sacrifices we each make in our lives in order to maintain a caring community and larger global society while still fulfilling our own needs.

When learning a Jewish practice called Mussar I engaged with rituals/ mitzvot (teachings) such as patience, and equanimity. The main idea was that each of us has an inclination towards good and an inclination towards evil or yetzer hatov, and yetzer hara. By engaging with this Jewish social justice practice of Mussar, one could balance between the two inclinations. This was done by asking yourself the question; ‘how am I serving the other?’ This question allowed me to consider the struggle of the other and to self-evaluate my reactions by accounting for how the other may or may not feel cared for in the situation. What is the other person’s burden? Just in asking yourself this questions requires a more sympathetic approach, and the ability to best serve the other.

From the source:
As we turn to a new book of Moses, Leviticus, we learn from the past two weeks torah portions (Vayikra, and Tzav) the value of sacrifice in biblical times. I dare to say the language surrounding the meaning of a sacrifice has changed quite a bit from what it is today. The torah shows the ways in which Jews became closer to G-d through the acts of these animal offerings. Today, instead of object sacrifices, we may offer our evil inclination as sacrifice. We may sacrifice this innate selfish or evil impulse in the hope of achieving either connection with G-d, our people, or in a broader sense in our goals of achieving global justice. A commentator on Vayikra states, “Those individuals who perform a single mitzvah draw themselves and the entire world toward righteousness.” Another commentator citing, “ When we want to draw close (l’hitkarev) to G-d, we must offer something of our own, that is, our ‘evil inclination.’” [1]

May we each continue to sacrifice for others in our lives in the hope that our actions will bring us closer to a more just, and righteous world.

[1] Comments this week come from The Torah A Women’s Commentary edited by: Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (pg. 588)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

P'Kudei (Exodus 38:21- 40:38) -- Relationships: who will you ask to join the fight?

In our lives:
Have you ever thought about how your life revolves around a series of relationships that are in constant flux? A “relationship” is such a vague term. Some of us have easily 20, 50, hundreds, or maybe even thousands of relationships. A “relationship” is defined as the relation/ association between two or more people which may be either fleeting or enduring. Relationships can be professional, personal, intimate, interpersonal, or theoretical. In other words, you have some sort of relationship with every person, organization, and to everything that you encounter.

Recognizing an abundance of relationships in our lives is easy. More importantly, how are our relationships cultivated and applied? The Jewish Organizing Initiative taught me the true power of relationships. I went from viewing the word “relationship” as exclusively applicable to dating, to a world in which I view my entire existence as it relates to my “relationships” with other people, organizations, communities, and things.

The Jewish Organizing Initiative helped me learn how to tell my own story, how to have a one-to-one (an intentional conversation), how to evaluate my own and other’s self interests, and many more skills which strengthen relationships. Organizing skills allows every conversation I have to be both strategic and fruitful. I spent the year building on, putting into practice, and creating a vocabulary for skills that create change among individual people, and entire communities. It is amazing the collective power that relationships can create. Think about those you choose to help, or what organizations you choose to donate your money to. If someone you have a good relationship with asks you to prioritize their particular cause, and it is in line with your own self-interests then most likely you will do whatever you can to help!

JOI taught me not only how to listen, and identify the challenge, but how to research, connect and apply solutions to systemic problems. These skills all came back to thinking critically and strategically about my relationships. Think about this… two people who share a similar problem may not be able to find a solution, but by sharing their problem with others, and by cultivating relationships, you may find that 200 people share the same problem. Now, you have built power through relationships, and have a need for systemic change. A community organizer may help to orchestrate relationship building among communities. The organizer may enlist the community to start a research campaign, and develop a solution where the community can hold those in power (i.e. government) accountable to the proposed solution. The collective people may ask that action be taken in a public forum. And that is powerful! Change like this could not be achieved without the power of relationships. Never underestimate the power of people and the ways in which individual relationships can build that power. So, share your story and think about who you know and how you can help each other make a difference!

From the source:
Last week in parshat P’Kudei we see a glimpse into the relationship between G-d and Moses. G-d trusts Moses with leading the Israelite people, and Moses in turn trusts G-d’s power. Throughout the book of Exodus, we have seen strengths and weaknesses in the relationship between G-d and Moses, and Moses and the Israelite people. But, as we complete the construction of the tabernacle, we see how the power of relationships has affected Moses, G-d, and the Isaelite people. They have learned from their mistakes and have begun to work together. They have proven to one another their ability to do great work,

“ Just as G-d had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work. And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks—as G-d had commanded, so they had done—Moses blessed them.” (Exodus 39: 42-3)

These relationships rely on one another to achieve their common goals of holiness. They want to be able to feel G-d’s presence in a collected space (the tabernacle). In order to feel G-d’s presence the Israelites must abide put faith and trust into their leaders, and rely on one another to collectively build a holy site. Just as Moses uses community organizing by working through his relationships we too can help strengthen our campaigns when we collectively use our relationships to create united power.

The take-away:
How are you using your relationships to organize power, and create change? Are you constantly thinking about how to strengthen your relationships? Are you looking for ways to create change, and do you ask those around you to help you do so? No? Take the time now to figure out what it is you will fight for! And who will you ask to join the movement? Want to learn these skills?? JOI is now accepting applications from passionate Jews looking to fight for change! www.jewishorganizing.org

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Vayak'heil (Exodus 35:1-38:20) -- The Spiritual Challenge

In Our Lives:

Where do we feel spiritual? Do we need rituals to feel spiritual? How do we physically or emotionally get to a place where our souls feel thoroughly nourished? Spirituality is individual and yet many may feel the ability to reach an inner peace when doing similar rituals or upon seeing similar sights. Unlike other religions Judaism doesn't have a specified place in which people travel towards on a journey, like the hajj towards Mecca for the Muslim faith. Nor does Judaism have a desirable mental state of achievement like complete "nirvana" for the Buddhist. There is no pilgrimage, or living person, that Jews feel hold their key to spirituality. Yet rituals exist that many Jews partake in and may feel helps them towards a collective feeling of holiness.

Our current world is constantly tuned in to our "gadgets"; computers, phones, and e-readers consume our days at work, home, or school. I find more people I know seem to be walking around in a daze or utterly dependent on their iPhone/iPad/ Blackberry for the latest media update. It becomes easy to forget what it is like to connect in person anymore, and even when we are in person the “gadget” has begun to take precedence! Spiritual connection either with ourselves or with others seems to be quickly becoming a thing of the past. Does anyone take the time anymore to sit and reflect? There is not necessarily a link between religion and spirituality, one does not need to be religious to be spiritual; you can have an innate sense of connectivity without participating in any religion. But, how do we expect to solve our own challenges anymore or find a way to see the bigger picture of our own lives if we are buried in updates of Jennifer Aniston’s new hairdo?


How do you highlight your values, and find meaning in your life? You may feel most in touch with your own and others spirits during meditation, or in a shared contemplative space, or even by engaging a friend or family member in deep conversation. It is all about reminding ourselves what is important to our well being so that we can prioritize what to make time for. Finding ways to be spiritual may help us figure out how to eliminate our stress, be present with nature, people, or our own thoughts. By allowing ourselves to be fully present we continue to strive towards our best selves. Try focusing on one thing fully, unitasking instead of multitasking. Reach out to those who may need to hear from you. Take comfort in the spaces around you. And allow the power of making time to change your outlook by allowing yourself the art of reflection. In other words: unplug and relax! You may find you learn more about the ways you do enjoy to spend your time then by losing all your time to updates which aren’t pertinent to your life and values. This week is national 'unplug' Shabbat. Join the challenge and take advantage of life before the cell phone. I unplug every week and find myself craving Shabbat every other day of the week. We live in a world where we are constantly accessible to work, school, and there is an expectation of an instant response. Imagine what making time for family and friends again would look like and how much your connections with others would strengthen.

From the Source:

Abraham Heshel, a famous Jewish philosopher argues in his famous book The Sabbath that Shabbat is a “sanctuary in time”. Meaning there is no specific physical place but rather for Jews the weekly gift of time allows us to find ourselves in a greater connected world, or Olam H’aba, the world to come. This past week the Torah portion Vayak'heil continues to talks about the creation of the mishkan/ or tabernacle. The tabernacle was a sanctuary which Jews built and prayed in after the exodus from Egypt. The past week’s piece of Torah talks about the elaborate process of engaging varying people’s skills, and finding extravagant fabrics to ordain their space with. Jewish law uses last week’s Torah portion to teach how to keep Shabbat by abstaining from the exact 39 activities that were done in the creation of the tabernacle. This is how we know the difference between work and rest, since work was used to build; our abstaining on Shabbat is equivocal with rest. While the tabernacle was constructed as a particularly holy place and adorned as such it now only remains in Jewish history. For Jews Shabbat is the holiest of spaces, or time. In this portion we not only see what a physical space should look like according to Jewish law but more importantly we are reminded of the covenant between G-d and the Jews to keep the Sabbath holy. Our time is precious and even if only for one day a week it should reflect our spiritual values so that we can feel fully present and whole. Think of how much more we could accomplish all week if we take the time to feel spiritually nourished!

Join me in The Challenge: http://www.sabbathmanifesto.org/unplug

A great book about Shabbat in today's technological challenges: The Sabbath World by: Judith Shulevitz http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/books/review/Goldstein-t.html