Friday, December 31, 2010

(Un) Circumcised Lips: Parashat Va-era

We all know about the importance of circumcision, more commonly known as a bris, in Jewish tradition. However, we generally think of circumcision in terms of one well-known body part. We do not know or think about the other types of circumcision discussed in the Torah. The Jewish people (in the physical case, men) are challenged not only to have an external circumcision, but also an internal one, a circumcision of the heart. This language is often used to signal the importance of humility and submission to the will of God and Law.

This week's portion, Va-era, not only talks about the aforementioned types of circumcision, but also speaks about the circumcision of the lips. When God tells Moses to come before Pharaoh, Moses responds:

ל וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה: הֵן אֲנִי, עֲרַל שְׂפָתַיִם, וְאֵיךְ, יִשְׁמַע אֵלַי פַּרְעֹה. 30 And Moses said before the LORD: 'Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how will Pharaoh listen to me?
The commentators ask, "what does uncircumcised lips mean?" Some of the early commentators, connecting this verse to Moses' earlier refusal to speak at the burning bush, assert that this means that Moses had a stutter. Others claim that he was not skilled in the art of rhetoric.

However, the Zohar, the core mystical text of the Jewish tradition, provides an unique reading. Moses' voice and his ability to communicate meaning were in exile while the people Israel were in exile. When Moses was reunited with the people Israel, he regained his voice קול. When he, along with the people Israel, approached Mount Sinai he gained the ability to convey meaning דיבור.

Without Torah and community, Moses's lips were obstructed. His impediment was not physical, but spiritual. Only when living in the context of a community bound together through mitzvot, could he find the strength, skill, and words to speak eloquently and effectively.

Many individuals in this world are skilled orators. However, after the thrill of listening to such individuals address their audiences, the listeners are often left feeling empty. When one conveys a message that is substantive, inspired, truthful, authentic, and humble, her voice and meaning are united. Her ability to communicate is no longer exiled or obstructed, but rather can emerge unencumbered and at home with her.

Often humility is positioned in opposition to effective speaking. However, the Torah teaches us that without humility, our message can never be effective in bringing about change. This is one of the greatest challenges of human life and leadership. As we begin the secular new year, let us aspire to achieve the balance that Moses did at the foot of Mount Sinai -- connecting speech, meaning, and self for the sake of communal success and redemption.

Shabbat Shalom from Tel Aviv.

**And in the spirit of humility, thanks to Yeshivat Har Tzion for the inspiration and texts for these words of Torah. You can access the Hebrew article here.

Conservative Movement Response to Yeshiva Stipends


Our sister movement, the Masorti movement in Israel, just put out the following ads on Israeli buses. This ad responds to the current Israeli government policy which provides stipends for ultra-Orthodox Jews to avoid army service and refuse work in order to study at yeshivot (study houses.) The advertisement quotes the ancient Jewish text Pirkei Avot about the importance of working while one studies:

"All Torah that is not accompanied by work will end in its nullification and will lead to sin."





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Friday, December 24, 2010

Remembering the Good: Parashat Shemot

In this week's portion, Parashat Shemot, we learn about the beginnings of Jewish enslavement in Egypt: In Exodus 1:6-10 we are told:

ו וַיָּמָת יוֹסֵף וְכָל-אֶחָיו, וְכֹל הַדּוֹר הַהוּא.6 And Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation.
ז וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ--בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם. {פ}7 And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.
ח וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ, עַל-מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע, אֶת-יוֹסֵף.8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph.
ט וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-עַמּוֹ: הִנֵּה, עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל--רַב וְעָצוּם, מִמֶּנּוּ.9 And he said unto his people: 'Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us;
י הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה, לוֹ: פֶּן-יִרְבֶּה, וְהָיָה כִּי-תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם-הוּא עַל-שֹׂנְאֵינוּ, וְנִלְחַם-בָּנוּ, וְעָלָה מִן-הָאָרֶץ.
10 come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.'


It is at this point that the Jews' trouble begins. Joseph gave so much to the people of Egypt and prevented their downfall, but within a generation, all was forgotten. It is easy in life to have a "what have you done for me lately" attitude, remembering only those events and favors which have happened in the recent past.

However, sometimes those in our lives cannot be there for us in every moment at their highest capacity. Often the people we rely on the most get tired, worn out, and might actually need to receive help from us. Had the Egyptians kept in mind all that Joseph and his brethren did for the Egyptians, a productive and respectful relationship could have continued and developed further.

When we remember the Exodus, we remember the distant past as if we were there in real time. Just as we remember the heroism of Moses, Miriam, the people Israel, and God in the distant past, we should also remember the great contributions and small kindnesses shown to us a while back. This type of remembering is what keeps relationships healthy, holy, and balanced.

A Happy December 25th and a Shabbat Shalom from Tel Aviv!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dignity and Disease: Parashat Vayachi

This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayachi, a portion filled with stories of a family striving for healing after several betrayals and years of distance. When reading this portion, a small detail in the opening verses attracted my attention: An anonymous person announces to Jacob that his son Joseph has arrived

א וַיְהִי, אַחֲרֵי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וַיֹּאמֶר לְיוֹסֵף, הִנֵּה אָבִיךָ חֹלֶה; וַיִּקַּח אֶת-שְׁנֵי בָנָיו, עִמּוֹ--אֶת-מְנַשֶּׁה, וְאֶת-אֶפְרָיִם. 1 And it came to pass after these things, that one said to Joseph: 'Behold, your father is sick.' And he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.
ב וַיַּגֵּד לְיַעֲקֹב--וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה בִּנְךָ יוֹסֵף בָּא אֵלֶיךָ; וַיִּתְחַזֵּק, יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֵּשֶׁב, עַל-הַמִּטָּה. 2 And one told Jacob, and said: 'Behold, your son Joseph has come to you.' And Israel strengthened himself, and sat upon the bed.


Despite Joseph’s power and Jacob’s weakness, it is still important that Joseph and his sons are announced. The announcement provides Jacob with the ability to prepare himself and present himself as he would like in front of his son and grandsons.

The Etz Hayyim commentary comments on this verse by teaching us, “One should never enter the room of a sick or elderly person unannounced, lest they be embarrassed, indisposed, or not fit to receive visitors.”

If any of us have either been in a hospital or visited a loved one in a hospital, we know that part of what it means to be sick in a modern hospital is that strangers walk in and out your room without announcement or asking permission. It is a time when it is so easy for a patient to lose his dignity. Often he is without his favorite clothes, having every action of his life defined by others, and is lacking the basic control over his life and his fate – he is deprived of a certain type of dignity.

Dignity (in Hebrew kavod ) is the result of freedom and control over how one lives one’s life. We need to be able to use our rational capabilities in order to craft and modify our environment as we see necessary. Never is our dignity more at risk than when we are sick. The physically weaker we are, the more possible it is that those around us can deprive us of our privacy and our ability to make our own decisions.

However, part of being a Jew, and in particular a Jew committed to the halachic system, is about developing the discipline and consequent awareness necessary to always remember the divinity, worth, and dignity in the people around us. The rituals and traditions of our people remind us of the importance of how our actions in seemingly inconsequential moments have the power to create holiness and affirm the dignity of the people in our lives.

As our tradition teaches us in Mishnah Avot 2:13 : "Eli’ezar says: May the honor of your fellow be as precious to you as your own."  This week let us focus on the ways in which we can affirm the dignity of others in our lives through honesty, consideration, and respect for their freedom. Shavua Tov.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

To the End of the Land


In the next book group held on January 27th we will be reading David Grossman's critically acclaimed book: To the End of the Land.



A long and moving article on the book is here in the New Yorker.

I have been looking forward to reading this book for a while and am excited to begin reading it on my trip to Israel.

Looking forward to seeing you there!





Letting it Go...

This week's portion, parashat Vayigash, is filled with highly emotional moments. One of those moments is when Jacob gets word from his sons that Joseph is still alive. However, Jacob is not fully convinced that Joseph has survived until he sees the wagons that Joseph has sent for him (Genesis 45:26-27)

כו וַיַּגִּדוּ לוֹ לֵאמֹר, עוֹד יוֹסֵף חַי, וְכִי-הוּא מֹשֵׁל, בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם; וַיָּפָג לִבּוֹ, כִּי לֹא-הֶאֱמִין לָהֶם.

And they told him, saying: 'Joseph is yet alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.' And his heart fainted, for he believed them not.

כז וַיְדַבְּרוּ אֵלָיו, אֵת כָּל-דִּבְרֵי יוֹסֵף אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֲלֵהֶם, וַיַּרְא אֶת-הָעֲגָלוֹת, אֲשֶׁר-שָׁלַח יוֹסֵף לָשֵׂאת אֹתוֹ; וַתְּחִי, רוּחַ יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם.

And they told him all the words of Joseph, which he had said unto them; and when he saw the wagons which Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of Jacob their father revived.


The question that the commentators ask is: why does the sight of the wagons convince Jacob that Joseph is still alive? Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, a Talmud professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote an amazing davar Torah on this topic: To read it in full, click here.

In short, he cites a midrash that explains why this was a convincing sign to Jacob. According to this rabbinic story, the last bit of Torah that Joseph and Jacob studied together was the laws of the eglah arufah, a ritual described in Deuteronomy that explains how a community can be absolved of guilt in the case of a murder whose perpetrator is unknown. The word eglah sounds like agalah which is the Hebrew word for wagon. Joseph was at once sending a code to his father based upon their last tender experience, but also sending a message to his father about how to proceed with his life. Joseph says to his father through this act, "Do not ask the details of what happened to me or who is to blame. You may suspect my brothers of foul play, but this is not a matter worth pursuing."

Sometimes we express love by telling the whole truth. Other times, we express our love by holding back and letting it go. There is no use for Joseph to destroy his father's relationships with his other sons in his old age. Joseph is not interested in dwelling on the past when he has reached such great heights in Egypt. Rather, he is interested in bringing comfort to his father and providing a safe and meaningful reunion. He might want to unburden himself by relaying his brothers sins and his own faults, but this would not serve his father or his relationship with him. As Rabbi Diamond concludes his davar Torah: " Sometimes what we owe the ones we love is to bear the unbearable knowledge of our own sins. Our penance comes not through confession but through changing the direction in our lives."

Shabbat Shalom

Monday, December 6, 2010

Meaning and God in a Secular Age

A small topic, right? There was an article today in the NY Times by a Harvard professor on the quest for meaning in a world where, to quote Nietzsche, "God is dead." The author of this article defines God as a singular standard of Truth that precludes pluralistic approaches to happiness and fulfillment. I do not agree with the basic assertions of the author or of Nietzsche, but I find the piece thought provoking. You can access it: here.

The author also quotes the work of David Foster Wallace whose work I (and many rabbinical students) love. While his famous commencement address at Kenyon College is no longer online (it is in a book now), there is an abbreviated version on the Wall Street Journal website: here. Wallace's life ended tragically, but he brought discussions of faith to a more mainstream audience in an important, eloquent, and valiant way.

All too often we are afraid to talk about God and meaning explicitly, but I think it is a necessary component of a substantive religious community. I look forward to having discussions of this kind in future visits. Also, always feel free to email me with thoughts, questions, comments, or suggestions regarding these issues and our collective exploration of them: risaacs@colby.edu

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Access Texts! Joseph, the Maccabees, and Jewish Identity

What do Joseph and the Maccabees (a) have in common and (b) have to teach us about Jewish identity in the modern age? This source sheet brings selections from the apocryphal stories of Joseph and his wife Aesnath as well as the tales of the Maccabees which reflect different approaches to Jewish identity and relations with non-Jewish neighbors. It also includes two later sources on what Jewish identity meant to two Jewish women in modern Germany. What do all of these texts teach us about Jewish identity in a non-Jewish world? Look at the discussion questions at the bottom of the sheet for further direction on how to think about these texts.

Click Here to Access the Source Sheet


Friday, December 3, 2010

Forest Fires in Israel: We Must Help

As many of you may have heard, Israel is now suffering from the worst forest fire in its 60 year history. Dozens have been killed, some villages have been completely destroyed, the dorms at the University of Haifa (where I studied for two summers) have been evacuated, and the entire city of Haifa is at risk. Israel needs help desperately. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for a day of mourning despite the Hanukkah Holiday. You can see updates on the current situation at the Magen David Adom (Israeli Emergency Services) website:

Updates on the Forest Fire

You can donate to help these communities and rebuild the forests in Israel's North through the Jewish National Fund:

Click Here to Make an Essential Donation

Israel's North is a unique place where Arabs and Jews live together and cherish the same forests and natural beauties of the land. It is essential that we help out our brothers, sisters, and cousins in Israel to help them get this fire under control and rebuild their lives.

For more information visit : the Haaretz website



Blood, Guts, and Girls! The Real Storie(s) of Hanukkah

Missed the presentation on the "real" stories of Hanukkah, replete with women's leadership, religious fanaticism, and light?

Click Here to Check it Out!


Thursday, December 2, 2010

...And more cheezy Hanukkah Music

From the Maccabeats, Candlelight :



Extreme Makeover: Temple Edition

There is little more that I love than Shalom Sesame. Here is a hilarious video about the Maccabees. It is very cute.


Click Here for Video


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Happy Hanukkah!!

This is a holiday that celebrates miracles, might, and national pride. Even though it is a relatively minor holiday, I think it is worthwhile to take joy in these values, at least once a year. So...Hag Urim Sameach Have a Happy Festival of Lights!

If possible, share the Hanukkah light that you kindle with neighbors, family, and friends. Making this mitzvah public is how we fulfill the commandment of Pirsumei HaNisah , publicizing the miracle.

Looking forward to lighting candles with everyone tomorrow!



Hanukkah: A Grand Disappointment?

That is the assertion of Howard Jacobson, author of the Finkler Question -- which we will be reading in our book group tomorrow. I take issue with some of his assertions and his tone, but both provide greater insight into the motivations and content of his book.

Click Here to read the NY Times editorial