Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Tonight is the third night of NFTY-STR's Winter Regional convention. Every year teens from all over South Florida gather for four days of programming led by their regional board. Every year on the third night they run a program called "STR Search," which is basically a talent show. The first act tonight was a senior girl who I have seen sing four years in a row. She is a good singer who, bluntly put, thinks she's great. She gets a little too loud and a lot too close to the microphone. She also happens to be a high functioning autistic child, so nobody minds. As an adult, I think it is great to let her sing away. I know that she has issues but she loves to express herself in song, so I tolerate her. But here's the miracle: the high school kids to whom she sings. The self-focused, apathetic, materialistic kids who don't want to do anything but feed their desires, they don't just tolerate her. They love her.
When she sings, they sing along, they hoot encouragingly, and they cheer while she pushes through difficult parts of the song. When she finishes, they give her a standing ovation. It was so beautiful, I felt tears forming. But I wasn't alone. A quick glance around the advisors sitting in the back taught me that I was not alone by far.
These kids at NFTY-STR are an incredible miracle. They make me proud to work with them, proud to do what I do, and consistently impressed by the vast amounts of compassion they are capable of.
Thank you, NFTY-STR. You are the best gift I have gotten this Chanukah.
Friday, December 23, 2011
It was a picture of Gilad Shalit celebrating Chanukah at home. Gilad Shalit, for over 5 years, was held captive by Hamas militants. From the time he was 19 to 25, he was imprisoned and deprived of many of the freedoms the rest of the world takes for granted. On October 18, just over two months ago, he was released in exchange for over 1000 Palestinians who had been captured by Israel.
So often we sit in our homes and light our Chanukiot without even a thought to how lucky we are to be able to do so. Gilad Shalit could not celebrate any holidays for over 5 years, and now because of the perseverance of his family and the willingness of the Israeli government to compromise, we are able to celebrate with him, and acknowledge our own freedom this Chanukah.
May we understand how blessed we are to be free to light our Chanukiot this Chanukah.
Thursday, December 22, 2011
Watching a 4-year-old be so tender with his baby sister was truly a miracle.
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Why do we light eight-branch candelabra?
About 100 years later or more, the Jewish historian Josephus explains the same phenomenon. He explains that when the Maccabees were surveying the damage done to the Temple after the war, they found eight spears sticking out of the ground, four on either side of the entrance to the Holy of Holies. That was clearly a sign that they should celebrate their dedication for eight days.
When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean Dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil, which they lay with the seal of the High Priest, which contained sufficient oil for one day’s lighting only. Yet a miracle occurred, and they lit the lamp for eight days (Shabbat 21b).
This is the answer we all come up with when we think about the miracle of Chanukah, but it wasn’t written about until several hundred years after the Maccabean revolt! According to the principal of Ockham’s razor, all things being equal, the simplest explanation is most likely to be true. So which is simpler: that a one-day cruse of oil lasted eight days or that a group of people wanted to relive a holiday they enjoyed a lot? Probably the latter.
But more important than trying to figure out what really happened over 2000 years ago is the realization what the development of our ancient texts teaches us. The ragtag group of warrior priests winning the battles over the Syrian Greeks was a miracle. It was amazing that they were able to come to some sort of victory against all odds. That was truly something to celebrate. Perhaps as the years went on they wanted to attribute the victory more to God and less to the guerrilla warriors. That’s terrific, and makes for a great story. So they changed the miracle from the battlefield to the candle light. That’s ok, because Judaism is all about taking the needs of the day and reacting to them as a people. The rabbis of the Talmud created such a powerful story that we still teach it to our children today.
But no matter how amazing their stories are, the rabbis never teach us that their way is the final word. They instead teach us that it is the responsibility of learned Jews to notice the miracles of our day. We might not see a pillar of smoke and fire or a flaming chariot with fiery horses, but we will see a flower blooming. We will connect with a friend, and notice the beauty in the world around us. These are all miracles, and they should be noted as nothing less. It is up to us to tell the stories of the miracles we see every day.
So this week I will try to point out one miracle for each of the eight days of Chanukah. As the first day draws to a close, I remember the latkes my family and I ate last night. To me it was nothing short of a miracle that my wife (very afraid of trying new things) thought the latkes with beets in them were amazing. (She supposedly doesn’t even like beets!) So today’s miracle is for new things: may we all enjoy them this Chanukah!
Chag Urim Sameach!
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Saturday, December 10, 2011
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Check it out, and write good reviews, because Martha Stewart's people are reviewing it too, and the more reviews it gets the more likely she will mention it on her site! Boo yah!!
Thursday, September 22, 2011
Saturday, September 17, 2011
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Friday, May 6, 2011
It certainly felt like I was living in a fairy tale when I heard that Rush Limbaugh even uttered the phrase, “God bless President Obama.” Of course, it turns out that he was being sarcastic, criticizing the president for taking too much credit for the raid he directed. But at least partisan pot-shots bring us back to reality. The reality is that on Sunday evening in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a team of Navy Seals found Osama Bin Laden. After being dropped by helicopter into his compound and enduring a 40-minute fire fight, Bin Laden was identified, shot, and killed.
For some of us it feels like the dragon that has been terrorizing our village for the past decade will never again harm us. For others it opens a dialogue of doubt and mistrust. For others it is an opportunity to forward internet memes.
I was in Israel 10 years ago on September 11, and I vividly remember watching the television for three days straight as we wondered what was going to happen to us as Americans in the Middle East. I remember the moment in time when many of us thought that retaliation was the only possible solution. I remember watching news clip after news clip of Al-Qaida supporters dancing in the streets and celebrating at our loss. It made us angry. So angry their leaders told them to stop for fear of what Americans might do.
When I first learned that Bin Laden had been killed, my initial reaction was relief—even joy. I was glad he was gone, and relieved that the head of the beast had been cut off. Then the tweets and texts started pouring in. People were rejoicing in a way that reminded me of those clips 10 years ago.
Looking at our sacred texts, however, teaches us a different message. The book of Proverbs says, “When your enemy falls do not celebrate, and when he stumbles do not rejoice” (24:17). This line comes right after the Proverb tells us that those who do not follow God’s ways are guaranteed to fall. Yet we are not supposed to rejoice when they do. When they die, all opportunity is lost. What miniscule chance there may have been for them to repent is gone. As the book of Ezekiel teaches us, God does not desire the death of the wicked, but that they turn from their ways and live (18:23).
A 13th century collection of Midrash called Yalkut Shimoni comments on the song at the sea, the poem the Israelites sing after they are saved from the Egyptian Army. God makes the Red Sea part for the Israelites, and they cross on dry land. The Egyptians follow close behind, but as soon as the Israelites are safely across, the sea closes and the Egyptians drown. Moses and Miriam lead the Israelites in song praising God, and up above the angels are watching. When the angels begin to sing, God scolds them, “You want to sing while my children are drowning?” We are reminded that all human beings are created in the image of God. Not all the good ones or all with exception. Every human being is in the image of God. Even those who might do us harm.
There are teachings in our tradition that seem to contradict this notion. The Parashah we read this week gives us a review of the law of retaliation. Near the end of Parashat Emor, we read:
If a man maims another, as he has done so shall it be done to him: break for break, 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. You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I Adonai am your God.The rabbis jump all over this verse. 11th century French commentator Rashi says that it should not be translated as inflicted, but as rendered, which implies commerce. Therefore, the comparison is not a physical one but a financial one. A man who loses an eye must be paid restitution for that eye, for example. In the early 12th century, Spanish Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra points out that there is no way to possible exact such a punishment physically. In the case of a break for a break, how could the break be made in exactly the same location? Even more so for an eye. Say a one-eyed man causes another man’s eye to be lost. Is it fair, ibn Ezra asks, to make one man go blind in exchange for taking half of the vision of another? So even in the case of lex talionis, we are not commanded to literally injure someone who injures us or even murder a murderer. Instead we are to seek justice. Punish them, but do not allow violence to beget violence.
Simply striking back when our enemies strike us would be giving in to our animal instincts. When the Israelites are saved at the Red Sea at the expense of the Egyptians, God lets them sing. They have just been freed from Egypt. They are confused, tired, and scared. They know they are no longer slaves to Egyptian rule, but they do not know what lies ahead of them. They are in limbo, in between freedom and redemption. When they leave Egypt their bodies are saved, but when they receive Torah they have the ability to free their minds.
The same is true for America. For the past decade we have focused on a scary monster dubbed “Terror.” We have been afraid for ten years to travel; we have allowed prejudice and bigotry to take over our political discourse; we have looked into the eyes of God’s creations and seen only that which is, “other.” Last weekend our Navy Seals took down a symbol of that monster’s power. Our struggle is not over. We will have more monsters to fight, more dragons to slay. We are free but not yet redeemed. We still have to free our minds. As a nation we must come to the realization that we must treat all human beings—even those who would do us harm—as they are: created in the image of God. Then we will be working toward the day when God will be one and God’s name will be one.
Monday, April 25, 2011
No matter how our individual short term memory might fall short, our memory as a Jewish people is strong and will not fail us.
Passover is all about memory. The holiday is full of these triggers that help us remember our past and look forward to our future. We herald its beginning with a festive meal, during which we hold a Seder, a structured service. This service reminds us of the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt, being freed from the slavery and oppression of the Pharaoh and his taskmasters. There are symbolic foods served during the meal. These serve either as reminders of the Israelite slavery, or as reminders of the spring that is beginning, and the new life that sprouts every year at this time.
Throughout the week of Passover we avoid chametz and kitniyot, leavened products, and eat only matzah. This is also a dual reminder. Eating ha lachma anya, the poor bread, reminds us that we were destitute. We could not eat the fancy breads that had flavor and nourishment. Only the flat, dry, and tasteless bread was available for the slaves of Egypt. It also reminds us of the exodus; how we had to leave Egypt so quickly that the bread was not given sufficient time to rise. Matzah is a reminder of our freedom at the moment of our escape.
Now that we are approaching the end of Passover, we read about the end of our deliverance from Egypt. This morning we heard the cantor chant shirat hayam, the Song at the Sea. This was the moment our freedom was sealed. As the sea parted and allowed the Israelites to cross on dry land, God frees us from the Egyptians and points us toward Sinai. You see, our freedom is not complete just because we are out of Egypt. We have a lot of work to do, and the mountain that looms ahead of us is the reminder that keeping our freedom in tact is only viable if we remain faithful to God. We sing shirat hayam, a song of praise to God, but our journey is only beginning.
Our Haftarah this morning was read from the book of II Samuel. Its theme is also freedom from enemies. After winning battle after battle against the Philistines, David composes a song of praise to God, not too dissimilar from the Song at the Sea. He ends with these two verses:
For this I sing Your praise among the nations And hymn Your name: Tower of victory to God’s king, Who deals graciously with God’s anointed,With David and his offspring evermoreHere his theme shifts. He is no longer singing about freedom, but of redemption. Migdol yeshu’ot malko, A tower of salvation is built to God’s sovereignty. A symbol of the permanence of freedom from our enemies. There is no more to fear because God is with us. All future generations of David will receive God’s grace. Every generation goes through hardships, but we persevere for the sake of future generation. Like a tower standing secure, we will be a beacon for future generations from now until the end of time.
(2 Sam. 22:50-51).
As we move into Yizkor at the end of our Passover observance, we again evoke our sacred memory. We remember our loved ones who served as a beacon for us, and whose memory serves as an enduring blessing. Though we may not be able to see them or touch them, the memory of those who influenced our lives is a real and palpable thing. As a people we trigger our collective memory so that the lessons from our journey to freedom will not be lost on us. We look back to those who accompanied us on our way so that we can teach their lessons to today’s companions. We look back so that we can move forward in a way that will honor their memory and the freedom they have helped us attain. We sing songs of praise to God for the blessings of our loved ones who continue to bless us through the power of memory.
May the memories they leave with us help us to mold our lives into the models they would wish us to be.
Thursday, March 3, 2011
Doesn’t it seem a little odd that a minor festival focused on kids’ celebrations and joviality would be described by the rabbis as the only one that will exist in the future? Purim is a time to let loose our inhibitions, dress in silly costumes, drink alcohol, eat sweets, and listen to a lewd and funny story read from a scroll that looks a lot like our Torah. Some of the traditions of Purim are wonderful, like giving mishloach manot, “gift baskets,” to friends or to the needy. Some are strange, like eating cookies named after the villain’s ear. Others are just not recommended, like drinking until we cannot discern two characters of the Purim Spiel. Is this really the type of celebration we want to remain in a perfect world?
Perhaps when we put together two themes of the Purim story we can understand the rabbis’ intent when they suggest Purim will be eternal.
First is the theme of reversals. In the Purim story everything gets flipped on its head. Near the end of the Megillah it even points out that everything Haman had planned had the opposite effect: “…the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, v’na’afoch hu, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power” (Esther 9:1). Haman built a gallows for Mordechai and was instead impaled upon it. Haman planned to kill the Jews on the 13th of Adar, but that was the day he was killed. He had planned glory and honor for himself that was instead bestowed upon Mordechai. V’na’afoch hu, the opposite happened, and the story is flipped on its head.
Second is the theme of hidden-ness. Haman hides a plot to assassinate the king and take his power, which Mordechai discovers only by hiding while he discusses it. The hero of the Purim story, Esther, derives her name from the Hebrew root that means hidden. Esther hides her identity from the King, and not until the climax of the story does she reveal that she is Jewish, thereby initiating all of the flipping that is done to Haman. In our Purim celebrations, we hide our own identities under costumes.
Perhaps the most striking hidden thing in the story is God. God is never mentioned in Megillat Esther. No miracles happen, nobody says a prayer, not once do we read God’s name during the Purim story. So if God is hidden, when na’afoch hu, the opposite happens, we become completely aware of God’s presence. It is evident at all times. In a perfect world, when we are completely aware of God’s presence at all times, it only makes sense that Purim be our only holiday. Because then Purim itself will be reversed, v’na’afoch hu, and the opposite will happen.
Saturday, January 15, 2011
The verses after Shirat Hayam are called Shirat Miriam, the Song of Miriam. This is a refrain of the first verse of Shirat Hayam, preceded by an introduction. (Plaut pg. 490) In English it says,
That’s it. That’s all Miriam sings.
Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea (Exodus 15:20-21).
In our modern narrative we often think of Miriam leading the entire Israelite community in song, and many of us conflate Shirat Hayam with Shirat Miriam.
If you flip back just one page in the Plaut Commentary (pg. 489), you can see Moses’ song in its entirety. The two-page spread of Shirat Hayam almost makes Miriam’s song pale in comparison. But we don’t think of Moses as the great singer and dancer. We think of Miriam. And we’re not the only ones. The 10th Century French commentator Rashi even suggests that Miriam’s song was an entire repetition of Moses’ song, but truncated because the Torah does not waste words.
Today we still extol Miriam as one of the great prophets of the Bible. She gets her own cup at the Passover Seder. Timbrels are decorated in her honor. Some Modern Orthodox Jews even put a piece of fish on their Seder plate to represent Miriam. All because of how much it means to us as a people to be led in song.
Music is central to the Jewish people. When we hear a niggun, a wordless melody, it helps us focus on prayer or study. We write music to our liturgy. We even read our Torah by singing it—chanting it—to drive its words into our hearts.
Those who lead us in song are great among our people. The word for Cantor in Hebrew is chazzan, which does not mean singer. It means visionary. Someone who sees deep into the meaning of the text and makes that depth accessible to us with music. In NFTY, the Reform Movement’s youth group, there is a core of song leaders who are considered part of the regional board. Musicians bring meaning into Judaism and deserve a special place among us.
One musician in particular has had a long-lasting impact on the Jewish community. Sadly, we lost her this week, and communities all over the world are using this Shabbat, Shabbat Shira, to honor her memory and use her music for worship.
Deborah Lynn Friedman grew up in St. Paul, MN. She was active in her NFTY chapter, and started writing songs to the liturgy and to themes of social action, often using rabbinic and biblical texts. For almost 40 years she brought her music to Jews of all ages, all over the world.
Debbie Friedman’s music taught me the Alef-Bet. We used her version of the Ve’ahavta at the summer camp I went to. Religious school teachers used her songs to teach us about Chanukah and Tu B’shevat.
When Natalie and I were in Moscow, we went to Shabbat morning services at a tiny synagogue celebrating a Bar Mitzvah. Even there, they used Debbie Friedman’s setting to Shema, Mi Chamocha, and Mi Shebeirach. That’s what they knew.
In Fairbanks Alaska, one of the congregants asked me if I could use the traditional Mi Shebeirach for services instead of the new ones we were learning. I asked what was traditional to him, and he began humming Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeirach.
Her music is deeply ingrained in modern Jewish practice, and on the hearts of Modern Jews. Like Miriam, she led all the Israelites in song. Her music is our music, and our music is her legacy.