Not one of my students!

Not one of my students!
Not One of My Students!

Welcome - Baruchim Habaim

Welcome - Baruchim Habaim
Welcome - Baruchim Habaim

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Torah Commentary - Lech L'cha

CNN recently aired a segment on "Klout." As defined by the young, earnest CEO of the Klout start-up, Klout is a measure of one's personal and/or professional success based on how effectively one uses social media. So- if your blog has hundreds of followers; you're the subject of thousands of tweets; your Facebook page attracts a million friends; and your video has gone viral; you have a high Klout score. (It doesn't hurt to have been on the cover of numerous "People" magazine and "National Enquirer" issues! Think Klout as in Kardashian.)

What bearing could Klout possibly have on the Torah Portion Lech L'cha?
Abram (later Abraham), whom we meet in Lech L'cha, plays an essential, transformational role in the evolution of Judaism. In today's terminology, we'd call him a "game changer." But, why Abram? Why did God choose this particular descendent of Noah to launch the Judaism of One God that is our eternal belief? Did Abram have some ancient Middle Eastern version of Klout?

While there is a charming Midrash about young Abram smashing the merchandise in his father's idol shop, the Torah doesn't explain God's choice. We don't learn that Abram is well known, or a recognized leader in his time, or famous in any way.
The Portion Lech L'cha begins almost abruptly with God's commandment and a statement of God's Covenant with Abram and his descendents.
"And YHWH said to Abram, 'Go from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house to the land that I'll show you. And I'll make you into a big nation and I'll bless you and make your name great. And be a blessing.' " (Genesis 12:1-2)*

Without a question, a comment, a complaint, or a proclamation, Abram makes a life-altering commitment and does as God commands. Thus, we learn from Abram's first action that, spiritually, his belief in God is incredibly strong, and he is open to "hearing" and obeying God's commands. From a worldly perspective, we discover that Abram is a man of property, a family man who has assumed responsibility for his dead brother's son, Lot and Lot's family.

As God moves Abram on his groundbreaking journey, Abram's relationship with God grows in depth and complexity.. He acknowledges God's presence by building altars and by invoking God's name. (Genesis 12:8)
At the same time, Abram doesn't surrender his ability to act as an individual and passively allow God to determine his and his familiy's fate. In Egypt, Abram makes a plan to have his wife, Sarai, pose as his sister in order to survive the Egyptians' lustful advances. The plan actually works too well and Sarai is taken to be a wife to Pharaoh. God intervenes with plagues on Pharaoh and Abram, Sarai, and their large household escape unharmed. (Genesis 12:10-20) God and Abram act together here to ensure Abram's survival.

Abram continues to travel and to grow in a patriarchal role. He solves the problem of finding territory for his flocks and Lot's flocks by suggesting that they separate and settle in different parts of the land. (Genesis 13: 5-13)
When Lot and his family are imprisoned by warring kings, Abram organizes a rescue and refuses any compensation from the king of Sodom so as to avoid any obligation to an earthly ruler. (Genesis 14: 13-23)

So far, in Lech L'cha we've seen Abram obey God's commandments and ably look after his family. What we haven't seen is any attempt by Abram to communicate the special relationship unfolding between himself and God. Abram doesn't share his unique status with family members, not even with Sarai. Abram doesn't use God's promise to multiply his descendents into a nation to intimidate kings or to enrich himself in any way. Abram doesn't seek self-promotion or embrace self-importance. He isn't sidetracked into pursuing some ancient form of Klout.
Abram, even now, a role model honored in our prayers, listens, obeys, trusts, believes, and strives to understand how he can fulfill the destiny which God promises.

As Lech L'cha continues, God repeats the Divine Promise to protect Abram's family; to multiply his descendents; and to give them land.
As a symbol of the Covenant, God changes Abram's name to "Abraham" and Sarai's name to "Sarah." In observance of the Covenant, God commands circumcision of all males eight days and older in Abraham's household and in the generations to come. God reveals that Abraham and the aging Sarah will have a son, Isaac.
In the final verses of Lech L'cha, without a word to anyone that he, Abram renamed Abraham by God, is a partner in God's Covenant, Abraham diligently listens, firmly believes, and completely obeys.

Admittedly, it's an immense leap from Klout to Covenant, but here's the take-away. From Abraham's example we learn that God's commandments are fulfilled by acts, not by announcements. It's what we do, not how many we tell that matters. Lech L'cha reminds us that in our hyper-connected, super-social world, it's our Covenant score, not our Klout score that defines who we are.

*From: Commentary on the Torah by Richard Elliott Friedman

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Torah Commentary - Noach

If the Torah Portion B'reishit is Shakespearean in its turbulent interplay of human and divine actions and reactions, the second Portion, Noach, is absolute Disney!
Presenting for your life long learning pleasure - "Noah, The (computer animated) Musical!" (or, as it's been dubbed, "The original Singin' in the Rain.")

As the scene opens, God sadly surveys scenes of human corruption and violence which have tainted the world which only a few verses ago God had pronounced to be "Good." Slowly, God's sadness turns to disappointment, then rage. God resolves to destroy all life on land with the exception of Noah, Noah's family, and pairs of land animals and birds. As the storm clouds gather and lightning flashes, Noah anxiously hammers away at the ark, muttering the measurements and directions God ordered. God points a divine Finger at Noah and sings the opening song, "I Choose You!"
Who's sort of OK in this evil array? - It's Noah!
Who's kind of cool - not nearly as cruel? - It's Noah!
Who's not the worst of a bunch that is cursed? - It's Noah!
Who shall I choose, while the others all lose? It's Noah! Noah, I choose YOU

Noah, his family, and pairs of really cute animals scramble on board the ark - lots of comic relief here. A monkey resembling the MC in "Cabaret" delivers one-liners, "A donkey, an elephant, and a kangaroo walk into an ark..."
Three furry critters dressed in evening wear play classical music a la "Titanic."
When all are on board and the deluge begins, a charming duck leads all the Arksters in a huge song and dance number, "Noah's Ark."
Noah's Ark is the place to be.
Not lost or tossed or sunk at sea.
For a lucky duck (or goat or guy or bear or mouse) like me.
Yes, Noah's Ark is the surest, safest
Beats-an-oasis, very best place to be!

After days and days and days and days of rollicking, rainy adventures, the waters recede. The soggy passengers who, by now, have had enough of the ark, eagerly scan the skies for the dove's return, singing "Where's That Dove?"
Where is that dove? She isn't above.
Is she stuck in the mire? Did her little wings tire?
Please, dove, find a space, a dry sunny place.
We don't mean to complain, but we've had it with rain!
And Ark life is a pain!
Dove, come out of the haze and we'll all sing your praise-
Oh, where's that dove?!

Finally, the dove returns bearing the olive branch. All disembark and settle on land in a huge dance number. (Think "Chorus Line" with a cast of hundreds - some four-legged.)

God takes center stage in the grand finale,"God's Promise." Noah and family and animals gather 'round and sing along with God as a glorious special effects rainbow fills the screen.
The rainbow is God's promise there won't be another flood.
God will keep us safe and dry and we'll try to be good.
The rainbow is a Covenant between God and earthly beings.
We'll behave so well - What a story we'll tell
Of the wonders that God brings

Thunderous applause! Standing ovation!

Wait, did I mention the tie-ins?
Happy Meals prizes - "Aardvarks to Zebras, collect the whole set!"
Or the mobile app - "Get Those Angry Birds on Board!"
Or the sequel - "Occupy Earth!"

Torah Study is a genuine blockbuster!

Torah Commentary - B'reishit

The Talmud teaches that "All beginnings are arduous." (Mechilta Yitro) The beginning Torah Portion, B'reishit; our world's Beginning; our Beginning; the Beginning of our relationship with God - all certainly "arduous" (as well as wondrous) on many levels. From the first resoundingly simple seven Hebrew words, B'reishit bara Elohim et ha shamayim v'et ha-aretz,we recognize the intellectual effort, spiritual commitment, and energetic embrace of complexity that the mitzvah La'asok b'dvrei Torah (to engage in the study of Torah) demands.

I have open before me three different Judaic Torah commentaries and one Christian version of the Tanach. Each presents a different English translation of the first seven Hebrew words of B'reishit. Each Judaic commentary offers an explanation of its translation - and this is just the first line in the first of 54 Torah Portions in the yearly cycle! Already, there are questions raised, ancient and modern commentaries to consider, personal connections and conclusions to be drawn - a year's worth of intense study, discussion, and reflection in the first seven Hebrew words of the Torah.

We have yet to even encounter the moon and sun, the Garden of Eden, the animals, Adam, Shabbat, Eve, the snake, banishment from the Garden, Cain and Abel and their many descendents. The drama of Creation swings from God's approval on the Sixth Day, "God then surveyed all that [God] had made, and look - it was good!" (Genesis 1:31)* to God's regret hundreds of generations later "When the Eternal saw how great was the wickedness of human beings in the earth, that the direction of their thoughts was nothing but wicked all the time, the Eternal regretted having made human beings on earth, and was heartsick." (Genesis 6:5-6)*
From primordial chaos to rampant wordly corruption - "arduous," definitely arduous!

How could I hope to effectively introduce my Sixth Grade students to their first Torah Study experience in just twenty minutes of Hebrew School time? I found a solution in a new resource called Experiencing the Torah by Joel Lurie Grishaver, published by Torah Aura Productions This book presents sections of the Torah Portions in the form of short plays, using the actual Torah Text (in English translation) as narration and dialogue.
After a brief rehearsal, my students performed expressively as Narrators, Adam, Eve, the Snake, and the most prized role - God!

They giggled a bit as "Adam" recited, "I heard you [God] in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid."
We paused in the performance and discussed that this is exactly what the Torah text says and that Adam's embarassment reveals to God that Adam has indeed eaten from the tree that God had forbidden.
The students excitedly finished performing just in time for dismissal. As I straightened up the classroom, I noticed that one student had spelled out in magnetic English letters on the chalkboard, "God was here!" While the student was referring to himself in his role as "God," the words resonated. Isn't that what Torah study is - a way to bring God into our midst as we struggle to understand how we can live according to the Torah's teaching?

In the Portion B'reishit, Torah begins with seven immensely powerful Hebrew words, and like the Mobius strips which my students made in celebration of Simchat Torah,** Torah never ends. God is here!

*Translations are from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, W. Gunther Plaut, General Editor
**This activity is one of several presented in the book, Experiencing the Jewish Holidays by Joel Lurie Grishaver, Torah Aura Productions

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Torah Commentary - V'zot Hab'rachah

For a variety of personal reasons, I haven't been able to post commentaries on the last few Torah Portions. Torah Study demands mental focus and dedicated time. Torah Portions aren't for skimming or speed reading. They don't include bullet-point summaries. Key words aren't hi-lited. Torah Portions aren't compatible with multi-tasking! All the while that I was caught up in an anxious tangle of "Urgent Things To Do," I was haunted by Hillel's teaching in Pirkei Avot. "Neither say, when I have leisure I will study; perchance you will have no leisure."
Recognizing that leisure isn't a given for me, I made a Yom Kippur vow to make time, to quite literally push aside obligations, to forcefully clear a sacred space where I could engage in Torah Study. And just in time!

We have come to the final Portion of the Book of Deuteronomy (Sefer D'varim), and Deuteronomy is the final Book in the Torah. In this final Portion, V'zot Hab'rachah, Moses blesses the children of Israel, Tribe by Tribe. God shows Moses the land which the Tribes of Israel will claim and, as God has decreed, Moses dies.
"And Moses was a hundred twenty years old at his death. His eye was not dim and his vitality had not fled."* (Deuteronomy 34:7)*
God buries Moses in an unknown site. Though we're told that, "...a prophet did not rise again in Israel like Moses..." (Deuteronomy 34:10)*, Joshua takes command "...full of the spirit of wisdom; because Moses had laid his hands on him..." (Deuteronomy 34:9)*

Nu...what happens next to the children of Israel? Do they conquer their enemies? Do they thrive in Canaan? Do they follow God's commandments according to Moses' instructions? We answer these questions by our actions everyday. Our lives as Jews are what happens next. We are responsible for upholding our part of the Covenant which God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As we begin again to study the cycle of Torah Portions, as we begin again to interpret, internalize, and apply God's teachings, we enter a timeless Canaan and continue the story. Am Yisrael Chai!
Moses is gone, but today I came as close as I imagine is possible to hearing Moses' voice. As part of the coverage of the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, CNN broadcast King's "I Have a Dream" speech in its entirety. The wisdom, passion, and eloquence of Martin Luther King Jr.'s words; the timeless, inspiring images; the message of strength, courage, hope, and opportunity overcoming hostility and bigotry - all echo the spirit of Moses conveying God's message in Deuteronomy.

In the final verses of V'zot Hab'rachah, we and the children of Israel are reminded of the "wonders" that God sent Moses to do in order to free us from slavery in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 34:10-12)

In his 1963 speech to the multitude gathered to march for civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr. irrevocably affirmed for the children of slaves that they had the power to be, "free at last!"

Chazak! Chazak! V'Nitchazeik!

*From: Commentary on the Torah by Richard Elliott Friedman

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Torah Commentary - Ki Tetze

Although the Torah Scroll is gloriously dressed, repeatedly blessed, and read in a ritually prescribed manner, the Torah is not a divine relic. It's a part of our ongoing reality. The Torah teaches us God's commandments for everyday living. Even though our concept of reality changes with time and maturation, we remain humanly flawed and in need of God's direction. In the Torah Portion, Ki Tetze, Moses teaches God's rules for a variety of situations which the children of Israel might encounter in their domestic, commercial, and military interactions as they enter Canaan.

We are taught the proper treatment of a wife taken from among prisoners of war; the punishment for a rebellious son; the imperative for swift burial of a hanged criminal; the prohibition against indifference to a neighbor's loss of property; humane treatment of animals...and this is only a small sampling of the commandments in Ki Tetze!Our reality is very different from that of the children of Israel. However, if we look at the intent, rather than the specific content of Ki Tetze, we find a timeless message of civility, honesty, moderation, justice, respect, compassion.
We're reminded that our experience as slaves in Egypt makes us especially mindful of caring for the stranger and the less fortunate in our communities.
"And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and YHWH, your God, redeemed you from there." (Deuteronomy 24:18)*

Our reality on this Shabbat Ki Tetze is shaped by our memorial observance of the tragic events of 9/11. We remember the nearly 3000 innocent lives lost in a heinous act of hideously distorted religious and political fanaticism. We remember a dark time when Americans found and continue to find strength and direction in the values exemplified by Ki Tetze.

As Moses spoke to the children of Israel, so Torah speaks to us today. As we study, interpret, and apply God's commandments, we bring Torah into our lives, our reality.
On Shabbat Ki Tetze as we remember 9/11, we, as always, affirm that Torah is alive, Torah endures, and so, as Jews and as Americans, do we.

*From Commentary on the Torah by Richard Elliott Friedman

Monday, September 12, 2011

Torah Commentary - Shoftim

The Torah Portion, Shoftim, focuses on justice, leadership, and moral responsibility. Conquest, with God's help, and settlement in Canaan are just the beginning. If the children of Israel are to endure as a strong, ethical community, there must be leaders to guide them in the fulfillment of God's commandments - judges, Levite priests, kings, prophets, military officers. God is, of course, the ultimate Leader and sets the limits of power for those who would rule in God's name.

A judge must not take a bribe. (Deuteronomy 16:19)
A king "...shall not get himself very much silver and gold." *(Deuteronomy 17:18)
A levite priest "...shall not have a legacy among his brothers. YHWH: He is his legacy, as He spoke to him."* (Deuteronomy 18:2)
A prophet - "...he'll speak to them everything that I'll command him."* (Deuteronomy 18:18)
An army officer must let soldiers in certain circumstances leave the group poised for battle. (Deuteronomy 20:5-9) and must try to make peace with an enemy city before attacking it. (Deuteronomy 20:10)

Cities of refuge for one who murders accidently and execution by stoning for one who engages in idolatry are both considered just processes in Shoftim.
There is even a process for bringing a "daunting" legal problem " the place that YHWH, your God, will choose."* (Deuteronomy 17:8), where a decision will be made by the Levite priests and the judge.

Shoftim includes several especially teachable verses - succinct, meaningful, memorable lines which inspire questions and prompt discussion.
"judgement with justice"* (Deuteronomy 16:18)
"Justice, justice you shall pursue"* (Deuteronomy 16:20)
"so you shall burn away what is bad from among you"* (Deuteronomy 17:7)
"On the word of two witnesses or on the word of three witnesses a case shall stand up."* (Deuteronomy 19:15)
"life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth"* (Deuteronomy 19:21)

In the classroom or study group, ask participants to read a text sheet with these verses in English (and Hebrew, if possible). Also provide each group with a Torah Commentary book. Assign a specific verse to small groups and direct the groups to consider:
What is the context for the verse in Shoftim?
How will the legal or social concept expressed in the verse, impact the Israelite community in Canaan?
Relate the verse to the religious, social, political, economic life of today's Jewish community in America. If, in the opinion of the group, the verse isn't relevant to modern American Jewish life, explain why.

Who would like to begin?!

One further comment - Did you know that Torah study has definite health benefits? Recently, I attended a lecture by a doctor, an expert in geriatrics. He spoke on "Ten Steps to Successful Aging." There it was - Step#5 - "Challenge your mind - use it or lose it!" The suggestions for mental challenges included "Take a class," "Learn something new," "Join a book club."
What better book than the Torah?!
Take one Portion and join me at Jewish Educators' Village, each week.
To your health!

*From Commentary on the Torah by Richard Elliott Friedman.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Torah Commentary - Re'eh

The Torah Portion Re'eh begins with God's words as communicated by Moses. "See: I'm putting in front of you today a blessing and a curse:" (Deuteronomy 11:26)* We learn that we'll receive God's blessing if we listen to (and act upon) God's commandments. We'll be cursed if we don't listen and allow ourselves to be led astray, especially in the direction of idolatry.

Re'eh stresses that we will thrive and be blessed if we actively demonstrate that we are obeying God's laws. Special emphasis is placed on rituals for sacrificial offerings, not at a time or in a place of our choosing, but " front of YHWH, your God, in the place that He will choose to tent His name there..." (Deuteronomy 14:23)*

While we no longer offer sacrifices and most of us have no flocks, vineyards, or fields of grain, two important themes of Re'eh, centralized communal worship and eating as a sacred act resonate in modern Jewish practice.

As God promised, the Jewish people have multiplied and established communities around the world. The ancient central sites for worship are gone, but in their place, we've built a multitude of synagogues. Are our synagogues places "of God's choosing?" I believe they are. God has given us the wisdom to interpret the lessons of Torah, to follow and apply God's teaching over millennia of cultural evolution. Our T'fila (prayer), our ritual observances, our Holiday gatherings, our Torah study sessions in our synagogues make them places "of God's choosing" where we can show that we're worthy of God's promised blessing.

In a sense, we even bring "offerings." As a member of a synagogue, we're encouraged to bring our mind, spirit, physical energy, skills, time and money to support the sacred work of the institution.

As for eating, that's a core synagogue activity! Oneg Shabbat, Kiddush lunch, Brotherhood breakfast, classroom snacks, fall barbecue, winter latke party, spring Seder - we come together to enjoy food after we've recited the appropriate blessings which transform a feast or a snack into a sacred act.
"...And you shall eat there in front of YHWH, your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household." (Deuteronomy 14:26)*

We, who are blessed with plenty, are commanded in Re'eh to give to the poor.
"...I command you, saying: you shall open your hand to your brother, to your poor, and to your indigent in your land." (Deuteronomy 15:11)
Here, again, we may look to our synagogue to fulfill this mitzvah as we bring "offerings" to fill food pantry collection bins placed in the synagogue lobby.

The Jewish community continues to study and strive to understand all that God commanded through Moses. We see that the one central sacred place for sacrifices of Re'eh has fragmented into hundreds of synagogues with one sacred purpose, the perpetuation of the Jewish people according to God's commandments.

When we bake challah in the synagogue on Friday morning, arrive for Torah study on Shabbat, bring our children to religious school, gather for Holiday celebrations, and come to T'fila, let's imagine that we're at the head of an infinitely long line of our ancestors - a line which wondrously reaches back to the banks of the Jordan where Moses speaks God's words. It's a blessing for us to SEE that while everything has changed, nothing has changed - like Torah, like God.