Tuesday, May 24, 2011

And Some Pictures from Ordination...

1) The joy and relief that it's over, standing among the Isaacs delegation.

2) Receiving the name "Rabbi" and having my Bible verse read:

קָרוֹב יְהוָה, לְנִשְׁבְּרֵי-לֵב; וְאֶת-דַּכְּאֵי-רוּחַ יוֹשִׁיעַ.

God is close to the broken hearted and saves those whose spirits have been oppressed. (Psalm 34:19)

3) Picture after descending the podium.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Thirsty for Torah: Parashat BeMidbar

Our parasha this week, the opening portion of the Book of Numbers (in Hebrew bamidbar which means “in the desert.”), begins with the following verse:

Numbers 1:1. The Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying.

א. וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר:

Our sages wonder about the importance of these introductory details. Why does it matter that God speaks to Moses in the desert? Why do the Israelites receive revelation in such a seemingly desolate and unremarkable locale? The Rabbis offered the following interpretation in Numbers Rabbah, a compilation of homiletic midrashim on the Book of Numbers:

מדרש רבה במדבר פרשה א סימן ז

ז וידבר ה׳ אל משה במדבר סיני למה במדבר סיני מכאן שנו חכמים בג׳ דברים ניתנה התורה באש ובמים ובמדבר באש מנין (שמות יט) והר סיני עשן כולו וגו׳ ובמים מנין שנאמר (שופטים ה) גם שמים נטפו גם עבים נטפו מים ובמדבר מנין וידבר ה׳ אל משה במדבר סיני ולמה ניתנה בג׳ דברים הללו אלא מה אלו חנם לכל באי העולם כך דברי תורה חנם הם שנאמר (ישעיה נה) הוי כל צמא לכו למים ד״א וידבר ה׳ אל משה במדבר סיני אלא כל מי שאינו עושה עצמו כמדבר הפקר אינו יכול לקנות את החכמה והתורה לכך נאמר במדבר סיני:

Midrash Rabbah - Numbers I:7

AND THE LORD SPOKE UNTO MOSES IN THE WILDERNESS OF SINAI. Why in the wilderness of Sinai? Our Sages have inferred from this verse that the Torah was given to the accompaniment of three things, fire, water, and wilderness. How do we know about the FIRE? From the text, “Now Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire.” (Ex. XIX, 18). And how do we know about the water? For it is said, “The heavens also dropped, yea, the clouds dropped water.” (Judg. V, 4). And how do we know about the wilderness? From the text, “AND THE LORD SPOKE UNTO MOSES IN THE WILDERNESS OF SINAI.”

Why was the giving of the Torah marked by these three features? To indicate that just as these are free to all mankind so also are the words of the Torah free; as it is said, Behold, every one that is thirsty, come for water (Isa. LV, I).1 Yet another exposition of the text, AND THE LORD SPOKE UNTO MOSES IN THE WILDERNESS OF SINAI. Anyone who does not throw himself open to all like a wilderness cannot acquire wisdom and Torah; and so it is said, IN THE WILDERNESS OF SINAI.

Why is the wilderness important? The desert is a place that is defined by freedom. Just as, ideally, we are all free to access the treasures of nature, so too are we all free to access Torah. The rabbis tell us lo bashamim hi, the Torah is not in heaven. It is here on earth and in our mouths if we let it into our lives. The wilderness also teaches us that it is not enough to have Torah accessible. We need to be open to learn its lessons and internalize them. We must recognize the bounty of Torah, Torah life, and Torah values and then open ourselves up wide enough to access its wisdom and beauty.

As we continue our work together in Waterville, we must remember these two important facts that the rabbis communicated with such passion and eloquence. Torah can be accessed anywhere, and it is free to all who thirst for it. Moreover, even if it seems alien or hard to swallow, we must remain open to Torah’s unexpected revelations and directions on how to live a holy life in the context of a holy community.

Thinking Differently about Israel

After President Obama's speech about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Jewish world is abuzz with commentaries of various kinds. I do not believe that I can fairly and accurately address the nuances of the situation electronically. Generally, when discussing topics this sensitive and complex, I prefer to have face to face interactions.

The New York Times, however, has published two great photo spreads of Israeli society today. I believe that these photos represent the beauty, complexity, pain, and humor of life in Israel better than anything that could be expressed in the written word. I am so glad that they've published these two albums:

Israel with a Knowing Wink

From Exodus to Ethiopia

Enjoy and let me know what you think!

I am Now Officially Rabbi Isaacs!

This past Thursday I had the distinct honor and privilege of being ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. If you click here, you can see a copy of the ordination program which includes a brief personal biography and the Bible verse I chose to represent my vision for the rabbinate. Here are a few pictures after my academic graduation and before rabbinic ordination! You can view the courtyard of the Seminary, its synagogue, and the stairs outside of the library.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Yizkor, Remember: The Fallen Soldiers of the State of Israel

Today is Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembering all of the Israeli soldiers who have fallen in defense of the Jewish State. Additionally, we remember all of the victims of terror, killed in attacks specifically intended to kill Israeli civilians. In Israel there is a siren that is sounded in every town and every city. The entire country stands in silence, cars stop on the highways and the drivers exit their vehicles. Every TV channel tells the stories of each victim and their names are shown one by one for 24 hours. There is no American equivalent of this rememberance, which makes it difficult to imagine an entire country standing in solidarity with those who lost their lives in defense of their lives.

I remember clearly being at a tekes, a ceremony, for fallen soldiers at an Israeli high school many years ago. The banner that was flying above the students said, "A state is not given on a silver platter." It is a shame that this is the truth and that children understand this reality at such a young age. However, without the sacrifice of the men and women of the Israeli Defense Forces, we would not possess a state, the locus for Jewish life, culture, and energy in our age.

Yizkor, Zichronam L'vracha. Remember, may their memories be for a blessing.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Doing It on Time: Parashat Emor

The Jewish and American communities are abuzz with all of the ethical and practical implications of Osama bin Laden's death. As is the case whenever something occurs in middle eastern politics, debates regarding Israel's future are amplified. However, I want to address an issue that was extremely controversial in the time of the Mishnah (100 C.E), but has become less controversial today: the calendar.

To a certain extent, it is one of the few things that we can more or less agree upon. Some of us may celebrate hag sheni, the second day of festivals in the diaspora, and others of us may not. However, on the whole, we agree when Shavuot, Passover, Hanukkah, Purim, Yom Kippur, etc. begin. When we celebrate these holidays, (in Hebrew moadim מועדים), we come together to be part of a larger Jewish community that transcends geography, denomination, and all of the others things that traditionally divide us.

The term moadim literally means "appointed times." We are given instruction about moadim in this week's portion, Emor (Leviticus 23:4):

23:4. These are the Lord's appointed [holy days], holy occasions, which you shall designate in their appointed time: ד. אֵלֶּה מוֹעֲדֵי יְ־הֹוָ־ה מִקְרָאֵי קֹדֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר תִּקְרְאוּ אֹתָם בְּמוֹעֲדָם:

Often we think it is more convenient to celebrate holidays when they fit best into our schedule. We want to move holidays to the weekend or to a day when there is not a conflict with a secular commitment. However, part of being a Jew is foregrounding a sacred calendar in order to come together with the entire congregation of Israel in celebration and discussion. We disagree about so much, but at least we can agree about when to meet to enact our sacred story together. It is this communal structure and standard which affords our religious community authenticity and integrity.

This week let us think about maintaining our communal life and standards, remembering that we are part of a much larger Jewish people. Our calendar connects us not only to Jews around the world, but to the practices of our ancestors, without whom we would know nothing of our tradition. Most importantly, it brings us together, every Shabbat and every festival to see each other face to face, regardless of how easy or hard it may be in the face of our differences.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Counting of the Omer, a Time of Anticipation

The time between Passover and Shavuot is a time of great anticipation. During these seven weeks (sheva Shavuot) we engage in a ritual called the counting of the Omer. An omer is a measurement of wheat, and traditionally, we counted the omer in order to estimate the correct time for harvest. As the rabbis translated this agricultural ritual into their times and worldview, the counting of the omer was a ritual to mark each of the days from liberation to revelation, the receiving of Torah at Mount Sinai. Centuries later with the writing of the Zohar, the core mystical Jewish text, each of these 49 days took on cosmic significance, representing an attribute of God’s existence such as judgment, compassion, power, etc.

These next few weeks are also a time of counting and anticipation for me. In 19 days I will be ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I will be counted among the ranks of the Conservative rabbinate. In approximately 10 weeks, I will begin my work as your rabbi, and am waiting for July 15th, 2011 with great anticipation. The opportunities to teach Torah, cultivate spiritual practice, and fortify our community are overwhelming and incredibly exciting. The traditional Shavuot diet is traditionally filled with dairy treats such as cheese cake and macaroni and cheese. I know that when I arrive in Maine, we will celebrate with blueberries, honey, and all of the other traditional Maine summer delicacies. The work will be great, but I anticipate the joy and fulfillment will match the enormity of the task.

Getting back in Touch

It has been a while since my last post -- Passover in Waterville was joyous and filled with many activities which absorbed me completely. I will be returning to Waterville on the 13th and the 14th. I will be leading Friday night services at 7:00 pm and Saturday morning services at 10:00 am. As always, be in touch if you have any questions or concerns at risaacs@colby.edu .