Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Defend Health Care for Low-Income and Disabled Mainers

Proposed budget cuts will deprive 65,000 vulnerable Mainers of health insurance. It is one of the core values of Judaism to provide for the poor and fight for their dignity. Even in times of austerity, no one deserves to suffer or die because of poverty -- it is inhumane and completely out of line with what the Bible teaches:

Is not the fast that I desire the unlocking of the chains of wickedness, the loosening of exploitation, the freeing of the oppressed, the breaking of the yoke of servitude?
Is it not the sharing of your bread with those who starve, the bringing of the wretched poor into your house,
or clothing someone you see who is naked and not hiding from your fellow human being in their time of need?
(Behave this way and) Then shall your light burst forth as the dawn, your waters of healing will flourish again,
your righteousness will go before you and God's glory will be behind you. Then, when you call out to God, God will respond, "Here I am." ( Isaiah 58:6 12)

Please consider signing this petition to protect the lives and dignity of thousands of vulnerable Mainers.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Locating God's Will or a Silver Lining?: Questions from Parashat Vayigash

When tragedy strikes, how do you respond? In that moment of pain do you attribute your suffering to the will of the Divine, to some more ambiguous form of fate, to chance, to others in your life, or to your own sins? For most of us, the answer probably varies depending on the severity of the calamity and how easily we can assign blame to human actions. If someone someone falls victim to a freak accident or becomes ill for an unknown reason, we may be more inclined to invoke God's role. If, however, one is sold into slavery by his brothers (for example), he may be more inclined to blame them for his fate than God.

However, Joseph, whose youth is characterized by vanity and arrogance, develops a more productive, even possibly more mature, outlook in his middle age. When Joseph's brothers approach him initially in Egypt, they have no idea who he is. They cannot recognize the little brother who they so savagely sold into slavery. According to Midrash Rabbah, they did not believe it was him until he showed them that he was circumcised! However, once they did realize that they were pleading before Joseph, they were consumed by busha, shame.

Joseph, who had no obligation to console them, puts them at ease. Instead of licking his wounds or demanding an apology, he responds (Genesis 44:5):

5. But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you.

ה. וְעַתָּה אַל תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱ־לֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם:

Joseph saw the positive that came from his struggle. He was even thankful that he could aid his brothers as a result of all he endured!

There is danger and beauty in Joseph's approach. The danger is that this approach can prevent us from taking people to account who have wronged us. We can attribute all suffering to God, and as a result, never take necessary steps toward creating necessary change. The beauty in his approach is that it allowed him to move on with his life, find fulfillment, and recommit himself to his family. In my view, whether or not Joseph was empirically right about God's role in his life is irrelevant. Rather, the critical point to draw from this story is that Joseph had constructed a healing narrative instead of a self-destructive one.

David Brooks addressed this point in one of his editorials last month. He wrote a series of articles dedicated identifying effective strategies for crafting happy lives. One of the tips he offered in his November 28th editorial was "beware rumination":

"Beware rumination. There were many long, detailed essays by people who are experts at self-examination. They could finely calibrate each passing emotion. But these people often did not lead the happiest or most fulfilling lives. It’s not only that they were driven to introspection by bad events. Through self-obsession, they seemed to reinforce the very emotions, thoughts and habits they were trying to escape.

Many of the most impressive people, on the other hand, were strategic self-deceivers. When something bad was done to them, they forgot it, forgave it or were grateful for it. When it comes to self-narratives, honesty may not be the best policy."

I am not insinuating that believing in God's providence is a form of self-deception. Rather, I am asserting that this belief system often leads us to a better, more productive place. Rumination, "self-awareness", and an obsessive desire to identify the cause of all things are often not good for us. They do not lead to a life of giving, forgiveness, and joy. These behaviors and traits certainly play crucial roles in leading an honest life, but we should be loathe to make them our cornerstones.

Sometimes the "right" is the enemy of the "Good." There are times when we need to strive to be like Joseph, adopting a narrative that heals and builds. This narrative might not resonate with our pain, but maybe that is precisely the reason that we should seek it out and bring it to the forefront of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Fat Cows, Skinny Cows and the Struggle to Remember Miracles

When was the happiest day of your life? And then when did you forget it? No matter how great the day we have had, no matter how hard we try to hold on to the memories of abundance and joy, most of us forget our greatest days. Even if we remember a great day, it usually loses its luster after time, and we only retain ever fading images of those experiences.

In this week’s portion, Miketz, the Torah alludes to this phenomenon. Most of us know the story of Joseph interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh. Pharaoh dreams of seven healthy cows followed by seven lean cows. Joseph interprets this dream: There will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of scarcity, and as such, the Egyptians need to store grain in order to make it through the lean years.

However, there is a part of that dream that I never really noticed: Not only do the ugly, thin cows follow the healthy ones, they also devour the the healthy ones. Barring some unfortunate trends in modern agriculture, cows usually don’t eat meat, and certainly don’t eat other cows. However, Rashi interprets this verse in an interesting way:

4. And the cows of ugly appearance and lean of flesh devoured the seven cows that were of handsome appearance and healthy; then Pharaoh awoke.
ד. וַתֹּאכַלְנָה הַפָּרוֹת רָעוֹת הַמַּרְאֶה וְדַקֹּת הַבָּשָׂר אֵת שֶׁבַע הַפָּרוֹת יְפֹת הַמַּרְאֶה וְהַבְּרִיאֹת וַיִּיקַץ פַּרְעֹה:

devoured: A sign that all the joy of the plenty will be forgotten during the days of the famine. ותאכלנה
סימן שתהא כל שמחת השובע נשכחת בימי הרעב:

Once the years of scarcity arise, the years of plenty are quickly forgotten. It is as if they never happened. There is something deep within our psyche that communicates the words of Janet Jackson: “What have you done for me lately?” Unfortunately, this propensity for focusing only on present problems and not on past blessings is the source of most of our misery.

We can all think of individuals in our lives, and certainly ourselves, who are incapable of appreciating what they have or have had. Constantly focusing on the negative, their positive memories are devoured by sadness, depression, and loneliness. Even as a country, we are living through and facing many lean years and we are realizing that we squandered our abundance, either literally through not saving money, or figuratively by not adequately savoring the goodness that we enjoyed.

This portion is particularly appropriate for Hanukkah, when we are commanded to persum et hanisa - to publicize the miracle of the oil lasting 8 nights. That is why if it is possible and safe, we are supposed to put our hanukkiot by our windows for everyone to see and remember. The second blessing that we recite over the candles forces us to remember that God did not only deliver miracles in those days, but bazman hazeh, in this time as well God bestows miracles Our lives, if we are living, are miracles in it of themselves. Most of us, enjoy copious blessings even beyond our physical survival.

There are times in our lives when years of scarcity force us to take stock of all the goodness in our lives and reevaluate all of the petty things that we have obsessed upon. There are other times when sadness consumes all of our good memories and feelings and obliterates them in our minds, hearts, and souls. This Hanukkah, and this week of parashat Miketz, let us focus on not letting our ugly cows consume our beautiful ones. Often we do not have a choice about whether or not we will have a plentiful year, but we always have a choice about how we react. Even when we are scared and afraid, we can still allow the memories of past goodness to survive and allow our gratitude to sustain us during times of despair.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tzedakah on the Global Stage

More food for thought during this season of giving. Think about making a donation in someone's name for one of the remaining nights of Hanukkah -- it's a mitzvah and the right thing to do.

From the American Jewish World Service:

Visit their website at and join the conversation!

Ethical Consumption and Sacred Spending

An important message for the holiday season: Every purchase has a human cost.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy Hanukkah!!

Great new video from the Yeshiva University Maccabeats:

The Hunt for Kosher Donuts...

This is a great article about Tony's Donuts in Portland, Maine. The owner worked with my friend and colleague, Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld, on making his donuts kosher. His sufganiot (Chanukkah donuts) are not only filled with raspberry jam, but also blueberry jelly, lemon cream, and bavarian cream. The best thing about the donuts, however, is that they will be making a performance at OUR HANUKKAH party at Beth Israel!

I'm looking forward to seeing the whole gang on Thursday night at 7 pm for gelt, latkes (made by our very own latke bregade), and some delicious, certifiably kosher, Maine-made donuts!

Hunt for kosher doughnuts comes full circle | The Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram

Happy Hanukkah!!!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Circumcision and the Fight Against HIV

A great article from the Jerusalem Post:

20m. Africans to be circumcised against AIDS:

Inspired by Israeli program, men and youths will undergo the procedure as part of US, UN program.

Continue reading here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Strong: A Video by Rabbi Jason Miller

A great parody by a rabbi in our movement:

Holocaust Talk and Meditation at Congregation Beth El Augusta

Temple Beth El of Augusta welcomes the community to a Shabbat evening service on Friday December 16 at 7pm. The service will include a response by Marji Greenhut and Susan Marshall, along with their friend Susan Bardfield, to their pilgrimage to Poland and Auschwitz-Birkenau, led by Zen Master Bernie Glassman. It will involve silent meditation and prayer in response to this deeply disturbing journey.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Vayishlach: Thanks for Nothing/Everything

One of the greatest gifts that I have ever received is the gift of independence. Looking back, not having someone there to support me at every minute forced me to develop skills of self-sufficiency, confidence, and creative thinking. Of course, I have enjoyed the enormous love, support, and care of countless people, but just as important as their concern was the space others left for me to grow and define myself.

In this week's portion, Vayishlach, Jacob indicates that all of God's love and support might not have been as helpful as God had intended. Jacob says to God in Genesis


11. I have become small from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You have rendered Your servant, for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.
יא. קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי בְמַקְלִי עָבַרְתִּי אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת:

Rashi interprets this verse:

I have become small: My merits have diminished because of the kindnesses and the truth that You have rendered me. Therefore, I fear lest I have became sullied with sin since [the time that] You promised me, and it will cause me to be delivered into Esau’s hand[s]. — [from Shab. 32a, Ta’anith 20b, Ber. 41]

קטנתי מכל החסדים:

נתמעטו זכיותי על ידי החסדים והאמת שעשית עמי, לכך אני ירא, שמא משהבטחתני נתלכלכתי בחטא ויגרום לי להמסר ביד עשו:

Who could ever complain about too much kindness and truth?! Don't we all want more of both in our lives? Of course we do, and the more kindness and truth we receive from God and loved ones, the more we consider ourselves to be blessed. However, all good things, even these two values, have their limit. God's care was so great that Jacob ceased to take accountability for his own sins and weaknesses. He would have been better served with fewer blessings so that he could grow more as a son, father, brother, husband, and leader.

One of the greatest challenges of parenthood and leadership is knowing when we are giving so much that we end up taking away from the people we love. Sometimes, less is more. We need to take the risk of not doing everything for the person we love so that they have the freedom, the room, and the incentive to grow. Vayishlach teaches us that even God struggles with where to draw that line, and his beloved Jacob suffered from God's abundance.

This week let us all focus on taking the risk of not doing it all and not giving everything we have, so that the ones we love and with whom we work have the potential to take accountability for their own lives and assert their unique and valuable gifts.

Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Is Compensation Possible for Damages?

Our next Talmud class will be January 5, 2011. It will be at 5:30 pm at Selah Tea Cafe.

We will discuss:

"Is Compensation Possible: Introduction to Civil Law and Torts in the Talmud."

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

An Excellent Video on Diversity in the Jewish World

Beth Israel Chanukkah Party

What's the right way to spell Chanukkah/Hanukkah in English? I have no idea! But what I do know is that we're having our annual Beth Israel Festival of Lights party!

December 22, 2011 at 7:00 pm.

Beth Israel Congregation, Kelsey Street Entrance

It will be a night filled with music, latkes, chocolate, and fun for folks of all ages!