Friday, June 29, 2012

Shabbat Shalom from the Negev

Shalom Waterville!

I made this video for you to say Shabbat Shalom from the Holy Land.  This week's portion, parashat Hukkat, takes place in the Negev desert, in the city of Arad.  I made this video for you all IN ARAD, in HD reality.  There are a few seconds where the audio is compromised because of strong winds (as you will see, there are no buildings to block the strong gusts), but you'll get the idea. Basic message: "Reading the Tanakh where it happened is the most incredible experience!"  

This portion is filled with connections to ancient and modern Israel.  One small example is that in Numbers 21:9, God tells Moses to make a brass snake to save the people from snake bites.  As a result of this verse from this week's portion, we were given the following logo for the Israeli Medical Corps.  All Israeli soldiers in the medical corps have this symbol on their uniforms:

The Torah recounts the sacred stories of our ancestors who lived in this blessed land, and we continue their story by living our lives in this incredible location.  You can hear a little bit more about these connections from my video below.

Shabbat Shalom!!!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rebelling for the Right Reasons: Parashat Korach

The story of Korach as told by Rabbi (and JTS classmate) Yael Buechler through her  parasha -inspired manicure.  You can check out more of these awesome illustrations on her website!
Freedom and Dissent -- two of the corner stones of the Jewish experience, right?  We are the descendants of the idol breakers, the people redeemed from slavery, who fought arbitrary power and won.  All of these things are true and have inspired generations of Jews to fight on the front lines for the cause of justice.  However, in this week's portion, parashat Korach, we learn that dissent is not an unmitigated good.  Sometimes, if done in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons, making trouble displeases God greatly.  In the case of Korach and his followers who challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron, God punishes them for their sin by having the earth swallow them whole.    Why were they consumed if ostensibly all they wanted was equality?
There are a variety of ways to read the complicated, and often opaque biography of Korah, and a multiplicity of lessons we can draw from his legacy.  The first lesson that I would take away from this story is one about how and why we organize.  It appears in chapter 16:3, that we are presented with a model of organizing that is praiseworthy, “ויקהלו על משה ועל אהרון ויאמרו אלהם רב לכם כי כל העדה כלם קדושים ובתוכם ה' ומדוע התנשאו על קהל ה'.”  Literally, this verse begins that Korach and his supporters v’yikahalu, created a community! to challenge Moses and Aaron.  Korach and his allies highlighted the fact that all of the nation was holy and imbued with God’s presence.  We see a spirit of egalitarianism, railing against what appears to be arbitrary power, and contesting the elitism of a priestly class.  Speaking on behalf of the entire nation, they underscore the merits of ha’eidah kulam, everyone in am Yisrael.  But as we read further, it appears that this egalitarian spirit may be nothing more than lip service.  In 16:6, we come across the phrase korach v’adato, Korach, and his eidah.  It appears that he has created an eidah, a community, separate from the rest of the nation.  Indeed, in the Aramaic translation of the Bible, this analysis of Korach’s motivation is read into the beginning of the portion.  In 16:1, Onkolus translates v’yikach korach, and Korach took, as v’etpaleg korach, and Korach separated himself.  This indictment could not be more clearly articulated than by Moses himself who, angry and exasperated, asks Korah, “המעת מכם כהבדיל אלוקי ישראל אתכם מעדת ישראל?”  Is it not enough that God has distinguished you from the rest of the people Israel?  “What more do you want?” Moses asks – how special do you want to be?  Essentially, Moses and Aaron are calling out Korach, identifying his true colors.  Whether or not Korach’s ambitions were initially righteous, throughout the portion he increasingly separates himself from the community – seeking glory instead of justice.  
The Torah teaches us something critically important about activism.  Challenging authority for its own sake is not a good.  Some authorities are legitimate and needed to service and guide a functional society.  Moses was a deeply humble man, and along with this brother and sister, carried out the direct will of God.  When Moses challenged Pharaoh, he did so because his rule was illegitimate, cruel, and dehumanizing.  He ignored God's will and the universal codes of decent human behavior.  Even though Korach used the language of justice and equality like Moses, his separation from the community evidenced his true motives: power.  He did not like following directions and submitting to an external power, even one that was deeply good and self-effacing.  
Sometimes when we seek to rebel and challenge we cannot tell whether we are following in the footsteps of Moses or Korach.  Are we truly humble?  Is justice our true motive?  I think we need to check in with those around us to keep us on the right track.  If we are not selective and savvy about how and when we rebel, our voice can lose its power and authority.  We must choose wisely, look to our tradition for guidance on the proper way to express ourselves, and push effectively against societal wrongs for the sake of the greater community and not just ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom from Waterville -- next week in Jerusalem!

Midrash Class Series - Texts for Class One

I am excited to begin our midrash class series beginning on Monday, June 25th at noon.  You can read about the series here, in the Morning Sentinel Online.

Also, if you want to get a jump start on our first stories, you can click here.  We will be focusing on rabbinic stories related to marriage.  What did the rabbis have to say about the creation of Adam and Eve?  How did they portray the "ideal" marriage between the great Rabbi Akivah and his wife, Rachel?  Come to the Thai Bistro on Monday at noon to learn and discuss!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Abortion in the Talmud and Jewish Law

The Committee for Jewish Law and Standards provides a comprehensive survey of rabbinic literature pertaining to abortion, and provides the current legal consensus held by the Conservative movement on this topic.

You can prepare for Thursday's class by reading the responsum here.

See you at Selah Tea Cafe at 6:30 pm this Thursday!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

What Can You Learn from a Tree?: Parashat Shelach

Jewish tradition reminds us that we can often find wisdom in the most unlikely of places.  Parents and teachers and learn from students and insiders and learn from outsiders.  In this week's parasha, knowledge comes from an even more unlikely source: trees.  When Moses sends out the spies to survey the land of Israel, he asks specific questions about vegetation: (Numbers 13:20)

20. What is the soil like is it fat or lean? Are there any trees in it or not? You shall be courageous and take from the fruit of the land." It was the season when the first grapes begin to ripen.

כ. וּמָה הָאָרֶץ הַשְּׁמֵנָה הִוא אִם רָזָה הֲיֵשׁ בָּהּ עֵץ אִם אַיִן וְהִתְחַזַּקְתֶּם וּלְקַחְתֶּם מִפְּרִי הָאָרֶץ וְהַיָּמִים יְמֵי בִּכּוּרֵי עֲנָבִים:

Why is Moses so interested in trees?  On the most basic level it is good to know how well the land can feed the Israelites.  It's also good to know the terrain to see if the troops will be able to find cover.  However, according many commentators, there are additional reasons why trees are so important to our leader.

Rashi,drawing upon the Talmud, tells us that we can learn a great deal about a society from its trees:

does it have trees: Heb. הִיֵשׁ בָּהּ עֵץ, lit,. does it have a tree. Does it have a worthy man who will protect them with his merit. - [B.B. 15a]
היש בה עץ: אם יש בהם אדם כשר שיגין עליהם בזכותו:

If a society has trees that are thriving, it shows others that there are people of merit that care for them.  If a land is desolate, barren, and destroyed, it tells us something about the people who live there.  In such a society, individuals are not responsible, compassionate, or courageous enough to protect their children's future.  They allow their habitat to be ransacked for short term gain or do it themselves.  According to our sages, you can tell a lot about a people by how they keep house and the value they put in the future.

Rabbi Hayyim Jacob Blum wrote a super commentary on Rashi's words in the 1960s and derives further wisdom from the parasha.  In his work, Parchai Rashi (blooms of Rashi), he poses a question to Rashi, "If a person wanted to see whether a community had merit, wouldn't he look in the houses of study and prayer?"  Bloom responds that if there is a truly righteous man in the study house, his influence will spread to the streets, the orchards, and the fields.  True goodness spreads beyond the private realm of the individual -- it inspires others and makes the entire world a more righteous place.

There are two important things that I think we can learn from this parasha and its interpreters:

1) If you want to evaluate the merit of a society, do not listen to what representatives say, but rather look to their terrain.  Is it preserved, tended to, and cared for?  Does this society cut down their trees for wars or the cheap extraction of natural resources?  Does this society install mines on its most beautiful land, or create national parks?  Societies do have a collective character, their values can be discerned, and this knowledge should affect how we interact with them.

2) If a person is meritorious, her influence will spread beyond the walls of the beit midrash or synagogue.  While these places cultivate leadership and goodness, a person's quality can only be evaluated outside of the door.  People of faith often act one way in their houses of worship and another way in the stores or on the streets.  Individuals learned in Torah often bring disgrace to the Jewish community.  When Jewish learning and prayer is truly effective, it takes hold of your soul, and stays with you even as you exit the synagogue.  This learning leads to a light that illumines your entire community and inspires others to pursue mitzvot with seriousness.  

This week, may we all focus on cultivating our gardens -- physical and spiritual -- to increase the merit in our world, and make it verdant and bright for future generations.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Upcoming Noon-time Adult Education Classes

I will be offering noon-time Midrash classes at Thai Bistro. Come and learn about the sacred stories that are part of our rich tradition. All are welcome.

Dates are as follows:

Monday, June 25, 2012

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Monday, July 30, 2012

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Monday, August 6, 2012

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Eyes of the Stranger: Parashat Baalotecha

The Rev. Karen Byrne, Rabbi Raymond Krinsky, and Rabbi Rachel Isaacs
 If you have ever been to a Saturday morning service at Beth Israel Congregation, especially in the winter months, you know that we do not usually draw a crowd.  However, there are some regulars that come to pray, learn, and support our community.  And some of them are not Jewish.  Truth be told, this trend in our synagogue is bittersweet.  I wish that there were more people in the sanctuary, but I am inspired and overjoyed by the contributions of non-Jews in preserving the spiritual life of the shul.

In this week's portion, parashat ba'alotecha, Moses pleads with his non-Jewish/proselyte father in law to stay with the community.  According to the simple meaning of the text, Jethro (aka Chovav), is a Midianite priest.  In our midrashim, he is portrayed as a convert.  Regardless of how you choose to think of Jethro, he is clearly a man on the periphery.  The rest of his family in Egypt is not Jewish.  However, the good that he has done for the Jewish people is so great that Moses cannot imagine the Israelites thriving without him.

Numbers 29:31 describes a moving exchange between Chovav and Moses:

כט  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לְחֹבָב בֶּן-רְעוּאֵל הַמִּדְיָנִי חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, נֹסְעִים אֲנַחְנוּ אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר יְהוָה, אֹתוֹ אֶתֵּן לָכֶם; לְכָה אִתָּנוּ וְהֵטַבְנוּ לָךְ, כִּי-יְהוָה דִּבֶּר-טוֹב עַל-יִשְׂרָאֵל. 29 And Moses said unto Hobab, the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses' father-in-law: 'We are journeying unto the place of which the LORD said: I will give it you; come  with us, and we will do good for you; for the LORD has spoken good concerning Israel.'
ל  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, לֹא אֵלֵךְ:  כִּי אִם-אֶל-אַרְצִי וְאֶל-מוֹלַדְתִּי, אֵלֵךְ. 30 And he said unto him: 'I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my family.'
לא  וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-נָא תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָנוּ:  כִּי עַל-כֵּן יָדַעְתָּ, חֲנֹתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהָיִיתָ לָּנוּ, לְעֵינָיִם. 31 And he said: 'Leave us not, I pray you; forasmuch as you know how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and you shall be our eyes.
לב  וְהָיָה, כִּי-תֵלֵךְ עִמָּנוּ:  וְהָיָה הַטּוֹב הַהוּא, אֲשֶׁר יֵיטִיב יְהוָה עִמָּנוּ--וְהֵטַבְנוּ לָךְ. 32 And it shall be, if thou go with us, yea, it shall be, that what good soever the LORD shall do unto us, the same will we do unto you .'

The Kehot Chumash which integrates the Torah text with the interpretations of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, presents the conversation between Jethro and Moses this way:

Moses said, "Please do not leave us, because then people will say that you converted not out of conviction, but because you thought you were going to receive a portion of the desirable Land of Israel, and left Judaism when it became clear that you will not. You really should stay with us no matter what, because you are familiar with our encampments in the desert and you have been an eyewitness to all the miracles that God has done for us. Furthermore, your wisdom can guide us in many ways; you can serve figuratively as our eyes. And beyond this, we value you and we will cherish you as much as we cherish our own eyes.

Every individual in our community provides us with a pair of fresh eyes, a new approach to seeing the world.  Every person has their unique gifts and distinct hearts that move them in different ways.  Hovav is not just someone who knows the physical terrain well (though the value of this cannot be overstated), he knows who Moses is a leader, the challenges he faces, and how to best manage the challenges of the Jewish people.  As a fellow clergy person, his eyes are invaluable, and Moses cannot imagine his life without them.

In my life as a rabbi in Waterville, I cannot imagine completing my job without the counsel of local ministers, nor without the aid and support of the many non-Jews (or Jews in training) who bring their eyes, ears, hearts, and voices to our community.  These individuals respect our faith and do not seek to change who we are -- they endeavor to understand, fortify, and learn.  Their prayer and support should always be acknowledged, celebrated, and cherished as much as we cherish our own talents and contributions. 

Shabbat Shalom!! 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Can We Know the Heart of Another?: Parashat Naso

Here is my sermon for this week's portion, Parashat Naso.

This week's portion deals with the topic of how to deal with a woman suspected of adultery.  What broader lessons can we learn about modesty, humility, and graciousness from this disturbing ritual?

Shabbat Shalom!