Friday, February 25, 2011

Goat Hair and God: Lessons from Parashat VaYakhel

What does goat hair have to do with God? Good question. According to the Torah text, one of the contributions that the Israelite women made to the tabernacle was various types of weaving. According to the Torah text in Exodus 35:26-27:

כה וְכָל-אִשָּׁה חַכְמַת-לֵב, בְּיָדֶיהָ טָווּ; וַיָּבִיאוּ מַטְוֶה, אֶת-הַתְּכֵלֶת וְאֶת-הָאַרְגָּמָן, אֶת-תּוֹלַעַת הַשָּׁנִי, וְאֶת-הַשֵּׁשׁ.25 And all the women that were skilled did spin with their hands, and brought that which they had spun, the blue, and the purple, the scarlet, and the fine linen.
כו וְכָל-הַנָּשִׁים--אֲשֶׁר נָשָׂא לִבָּן אֹתָנָה, בְּחָכְמָה: טָווּ, אֶת-הָעִזִּים.26 And all the women whose were very skilled spun the goats' hair.


There are some interesting nuances in the Hebrew of these two verses. In verse 25, the women are referred to as "skilled" and in verse 26, they are called "very skilled." Why is it that those women who weave with goat hair are more praiseworthy than those who weave with fine linen and beautiful cloth?

Rashi, picking up on the fact that the Hebrew literally says that "they spun the goats," claims that these women had a more difficult task because they were weaving the goat hair as it was still on the goats. So zealous were they to begin the task, that they could not wait for the goats' hair to be taken off their bodies.

Another explanation that is less mythic and humorous is put forth by Midrash HaGadol. It claims that the goat hair was very fine and coarse which made the material more difficult to work with. Even though the goat hair may not have been as beautiful as the fine linen and the task may not have been as "prestigious," God found the task to be more praiseworthy.

Often we judge the quality of one's work based upon the final products that we see. However, we are often given different raw materials when we begin our work. Goat hair, on the face of it, will never be as beautiful as crimson and fine linen. However, the love of the women given goat hair and the obstacles that they overcame were much greater than the women who were given an inherent advantage.

This week, let us aspire to have the discerning power that God possesses when evaluating the work and the efforts of others. We must look closer at what we see and be more generous when examining the lives of the people around us. Sometimes the quality of the final product is really all that matters in the end. However, most of the time, it is the effort and endurance of those who have created the craft that deserve our attention and adulation.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Megilat Esther and Modernity

A wonderful organization, the American Jewish World Service, has put out a great resource connecting the Biblical story of Esther and current challenges faced by women in the developing world. This year, as in many years, Purim falls very close to International Women's Day. It is worthwhile not only to think of Purim as a holiday of about the redemption of the Jewish people more generally or of a fun day with costumes and candy. Rather, let us think about how this story is specifically about the sacrifices and experiences of women and how we can exercise power in the world.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Shabbat: Blessing or Burden? Lessons from Ki Tissa

This month much of my writing for our community has been focused on Shabbat, and in particular, about the holiness and joy it should bring to our lives.

This week's portion, Ki Tissa, focuses heavily on Shabbat laws and themes. On Saturday morning we will be discussing the verses that deal with Shabbat and their medieval and modern commentaries.

Click Here to Access this Week's Source Sheet!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Christians Embracing Jewish Wedding Tradition

I found this article fascinating from the New York Times on the increasing number of non-Jews who have chosen to adopt the practice of writing a ketubah!.

My Father, My Lord

Please join me for the great event Thursday night!

Thursday, Feb. 17, 7:00 pm, Diamond 141

My Father, My Lord

A film by David Volach. Israel, 2007, 73 Minutes, Hebrew, English subtitles. Winner of Tribeca Film Festival 2007 Top Award, Winner of Taormina Film Festival 2007 Best Director.

The film depicts a man, devoted to a life of study and worship, who hopes to impart his faith to his young son. It is a journey to the innermost world of the believer as he comes face to face with the still silence of God. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Israeli cinematographer Yoav Kosh, Colby chaplains Jason Heron and Rachel Isaacs, and Religious Studies professors David Freidenreich and Julie Faith Parker.

Part of the series, "Israeli Society through the Cinematic Lens," co-sponsored by Jewish Studies, Cinema Studies, the Goldfarb Center, and the Cultural Events Committee. All are welcome!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Fashion Statement in the Temple: Sources of Guidance in Parashat T’tzaveh

This week’s portion is about fashion statements. In particular, it is about the priestly vestments and their role in “making the man” (in this case, it really is a singular male) and influencing his decisions for the nation. One of the elements of his wardrobe that has captured the attention of commentators and physical artists alike is the breast plate, the choshen mishpat that was worn by the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest. On this breast plate there were 12 precious stones, each one representing one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

I think that it is important to retain the idea of touchstones in our lives. The priest needed to have over his heart always the names of the peoples he served, his extended family members, in order to make the best decisions for the community. He could not make decisions alone, nor could he have the present in mind exclusively as he made his decisions.

In remembering the 12 tribes, he remembered all of their members, past, present, and future. In Exodus 28:29 we are told that the priest has this breastplate for the sake of “remembrance.” Effective leadership means addressing your entire constituency and employing the knowledge of those who came before you. Without this memory and acknowledgement of those who have come before us, we cease to be situated individuals, and our actions, decisions, and rituals lose the power that comes from a rich context.

As the Baal Shem Tov wrote, ““Remembering is the source of redemption, while forgetting leads to exile.” In response to this comment, the Etz Hayyim Torah commentary asserts simply, “Our identities have been shaped by those who came before us.” As much as we would like to think that we are capable of creating something, including ourselves, מחדש, from new, it simply is not true. To succumb to this folly, even though it is so typically American, is not only dishonest, but prevents one from connecting to the touchstones of our past that can provide us with genuine and helpful guidance.

However, the story does not end there in this parasha. In the final verse we are told, “

י וְכִפֶּר אַהֲרֹן עַל-קַרְנֹתָיו, אַחַת בַּשָּׁנָה: מִדַּם חַטַּאת הַכִּפֻּרִים, אַחַת בַּשָּׁנָה יְכַפֵּר עָלָיו לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם--קֹדֶשׁ-קָדָשִׁים הוּא, לַיהוָה. {פ}

10 And Aaron shall make atonement upon the horns of it once in the year; with the blood of the sin-offering of atonement once in the year shall he make atonement for it throughout your generations; it is most holy unto the LORD.'

I thought the Kli Yakar’s comment on this final verse was gorgeous and fitting for the summation of this parasha, And it says “once a year” since on that very day “Yom Kippur” man is made as free of sin as the ministering angels, and man’s soul will be restored to its purity as in the days of old and in former years, and he who is wise will hear this explanation and add his own interpretation.”

The wise man will add his own interpretation. On this day of freedom and absolution from sin, the wise among us are told that we must add our own interpretation. We must make the story our own. There does need to be an individual component, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Without this spirit we would cease to be vibrant, repeating the past without passion or personalization. And without our touchstones, reminding us of our obligation to others and the knowledge of the past, we are simply lost. May this week we strive to hold all of those competing values in tension with each other in order to preserve this very precious dialectic that has brought us here today.

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, February 7, 2011

"Our Fuller Selves"

"In large part we cherish such experiences [going to services and attending life-cycle events] because they remind us of the fuller selves we know ourselves to be but so rarely feel in the rest of our lives. At their best, when they couple mind and heart in us and others, realizing self and community as one, we can be most deeply moved for we have in a simple human activity been taken far beyond ourselves to know the reality of our ideals."

Eugene Borowitz in Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew. (84-85)

Even though Borowitz continues to warn his reader of the risks of associating the worthwhileness of Judaism with how we feel, I think this paragraph captures what brings us again and again to ritual practice. Our feelings, mercurial by nature, cannot be our only reason for communal engagement. However, the value of being taken "far beyond ourselves" and knowing "the reality of our ideals" cannot be underestimated.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Schedule for Upcoming visit February 17-20

My next visit will be February 17-20th.

On Thursday night at 7:00 pm I will be at Colby College for their Israeli cinema event (see below.)

Friday night at 6:00 pm we will have a potluck dinner at the synagogue.
At 7:00 pm we will have Kabbalat Shabbat services which will include my sermon for the month.

Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m. we will have services with interactive learning.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Israeli Society through a Cinematic Lens

Here is a great program happening at Colby College that I suggest we all support and enjoy!

Colby's Jewish Studies Program, in collaboration with its new Cinema Studies Program, is pleased to host Yoav Kosh, a leading Israeli cinematographer, as the Schusterman Visiting Artist for the spring semester. Yoav has been an active filmmaker and teacher in Israel for the past 25 years. His cinematography credits include about 25 feature-length movies and dozens of television shows, drama series, and documentaries. Yoav has won numerous honors for his work, including two awards for Best Cinematography from the Israeli Film Academy, that country’s counterpart to the Oscars.

In addition to teaching a course to Colby students ("Israeli Cinema: Images of Life"), Yoav will offer public screenings of four recently released Israeli films. All are welcome to attend.

Monday, Feb. 7, 7:00 pm, Mary Low Coffeehouse
Life According to Agfa
A film by Assi Dayan. Israel, 1992, 102 Minutes, Hebrew, English subtitles.
In this tragic drama, the characters are all denizens of Tel Aviv’s nightlife, and the action takes place in an all-night bar owned by two women with difficult romantic relationships. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Yoav Kosh, its cinematographer.

Thursday, Feb. 17, 7:00 pm, Mary Low Coffeehouse
My Father, My Lord
A film by David Volach. Israel, 2007, 73 Minutes, Hebrew, English subtitles. Winner of Tribeca Film Festival 2007 Top Award, Winner of Taormina Film Festival 2007 Best Director.

The film depicts a man, devoted to a life of study and worship, who hopes to impart his faith to his young son. It is a journey to the innermost world of the believer as he comes face to face with the still silence of God. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Yoav Kosh and Colby's chaplains.

Monday, Feb. 28, 7:00 pm, Mary Low Coffeehouse
Vasermil
A film by Mushon Salmona. Israel, 2007, 93 Minutes, Color, Hebrew/Amharic/Russian, English subtitles.

The film, named after the soccer stadium located in Be’er Sheva in southern Israel, tells the story of three teenagers who pin their hopes on soccer as a way out of an unforgiving environment. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Yoav Kosh and members of Campus Conversations on Race.

Hodesh Tov: Today is Rosh Hodesh Adar

Today is Rosh Hodesh (the first of the month) of the Hebrew month Adar. Adar's claim to fame is being the month with Purim!

Shalom Sesame has a great video about Rosh Hodesh Adar. Click Here to check it out!

Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov (Good month)
Rabbi Isaacs

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Egypt: What to Make of it All?

No one really knows how these serious of protests will determine the future of Egypt or the Middle East. However, regardless of the outcome, the new face of Egypt will have serious consequences for Israel. On one hand, demands for democracy are something that should be cherished and supported. On the other hand, if the Muslim Brotherhood (the Egyptian branch of Hamas) has a significant role in the new Egyptian government, the historic peace treaty between Israel and Egypt could be put at risk. Our family in Israel is waiting anxiously to see what this new Egypt looks like.

There are two articles in the New York Times that put forth different theories on how the events in Egypt will or should affect Israel:

The first is by Israeli scholar Yossi Klein HaLevi: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/02/opinion/02Halevi.html?_r=2&hpw

The second is by Thomas Friedman:

For more Israeli perspectives that represent the Israeli mainstream, I always suggest checking out ynet: http://www.ynetnews.com

Annual Lipman Lecture at Colby College, Feb 24th: Tom Segev

I would like to draw your attention to the upcoming Lipman Lecture by the noted author and journalist, Tom Segev.

Tom Segev is an Israeli historian, author and journalist in the prestigious Israeli Newspaper Ha’aretz. He is the author of many books including The Seventh Million: Israelis and the Holocaust (Barnes and Nobles 2000); 1967: Israel, the War and the Year That Transformed the Middle East,(Metropolitan Books 2006), and most recently, his bestselling volume on the famous Nazi Hunter: Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends(Doubleday 2010). The last book has been translated into several languages, received rave reviews and was listed by Dwight Garner of the New York Times as one of the top 10 books of 2010. The book is also a finalist for the National Book Critics awards.

Tom Segev is the speaker of the 2011 Lipman Lecture on “Nazi Hunter: Simon Wiesenthal, the Man who Refused to Forget.” In addition to the book he will discuss topics related to the Holocaust, Israel and current affairs in the Middle East on Thursday, February 24, 2011, 7.00 pm., the Pugh Center, Colby College.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Parashat Terumah: Thinking about the Temple in Waterville

Today I heard one of the finest senior sermons of the year written by my classmate Jill. She spoke of the profound holiness, joy, and commitment that she had found in all of the small congregations she had served around the country. Even though the congregations she has served have not been the largest or most "prestigious," she has been moved consistently by the homemade meals they have cooked and the commitment that they have made to keep their communities alive. As I heard her message, it resonated profoundly.

She brought a famous midrash on Exodus 25:2-3 in order to illustrate her point. The Torah text states:

ב דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ-לִי תְּרוּמָה: מֵאֵת כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמָתִי.2 'Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart makes him willing you shall take My offering.
ג וְזֹאת, הַתְּרוּמָה, אֲשֶׁר תִּקְחוּ, מֵאִתָּם: זָהָב וָכֶסֶף, וּנְחֹשֶׁת.



3 And this is the offering which you shall take of them: gold, and silver, and brass.
The midrash interprets what these gold, silver, and brass offerings are:

This teaches that the Holy One Blessed He showed them three offerings: one of tabernacle, one of the First Temple, and one of the Second Temple, as it says: gold, silver and brass.

Gold- to reflect the Tabernacle that Moshe made, which was beloved by the Holy One Blessed be He as gold.

Silver-this is the First Temple that Shlomo built of which it is written: silver was not valued at the days of Shlomo at all (Chronicles 9).

Brass- this is the Second Temple that was missing five things: the Ark, the Ark-cover, Cherubim, (heavenly) Fire and Holy Spirit. (Yalkut Shimoni 5,7)


God loved the most simple structure, the Tabernacle or mishkan, the most. This most precious and beloved mishkan (which literally means dwelling place) was made with materials gathered in the desert. It was constructed with the voluntary offerings given by every Israelite. The larger and more elaborate the structure, the more that a) precious things were taken for granted and 2) Torah and God were forgotten.

While we in Waterville may have many challenges, I think that our community is most like the mishkan. The attributes of this congregation that I cherished from the moment I entered this holy community were: 1) authenticity 2) family and 3) commitment.

I will never forget the first voluntary offerings I experienced in Waterville: the homemade food from everyone in the community, reflecting the flavors and tastes of each individual member and family. Homemade muffins, tomatoes from your gardens, rice and beans, mac and cheese. How refreshing, and how novel, to pray and live in a community where people share their homes and their hearts at the monthly synagogue potluck.

Always in my mind is the sight of the older kids in the congregation from high school and middle school playing with our pre-bar and bat mitzvah age kids in the library. The kids in our community have grown up together, care for one another, and take joy in each other. This aspect of our community is also unique, and could only come as the result of quality families who have chosen to maintain Jewish life in a town where it is a (rewarding) challenge to do so.

Like in so many small communities, the amount of effort and energy that needs to be dedicated by a committed core is enormous. However, as a result, the experience is far more meaningful. We must consistently encounter a lesson that is just as relevant in a big city as it is in a small town, but is more rarely learned in cities with large Jewish communities: it takes effort to be Jewish. Value comes with a price. And when we endure, acknowledge, and celebrate our Jewish commitments, it changes who we are, how our children perceive the value of being Jewish, and the impact we can make on our greater communities.

It is our simplest and most earnest offerings that are the most precious and beloved. It is on this week of Parashat Terumah, literally this story of giving, that I appreciate being a member of Beth Israel Congregation. This semester, I am looking forward to working with the congregation on recognizing its value, its life, and all the potential that it possesses when we acknowledge our many gifts and riches.

Shabbat Shalom.