Sunday, October 05, 2014

Revealing What Others Want to Hide Away: Special Needs and Judaism

What do we do with the verses in Torah that seem to explicitly exclude people with physical disabilities? Need they be read literally, as an illustration of how we might intentionally marginalize such members of our communities?

Teaching parashat hashavuah (weekly Torah portion) to a group of young people, I stumbled upon Leviticus verses which offended the sensibilities of that generation of youth raised to envision full inclusion of people with disabilities.

We read the curious prohibition in Torah forbade kohanim (Israelite priests) with a moom (blemish) from serving in the priesthood and precluded them from approaching the altar to offer the fire-offerings. Leviticus 21:16-23 enumerated the specific disqualifying blemishes: blindness, injured thigh, sunken nose, hands or feet of unequal length, broken arm or leg, bone deformities, hunchback, cataracts, certain skin diseases and crushed testicle.

The subsequent verses and a related Mishnah sharpened the exclusion: Such kohanim were permitted to carry out only Temple functions not involving actual service at the altar, since “they were not standing before the Eternal.” The Torah forbade a kohen (priest) who had been blemished to approach the veil (Lev. 21:23), and as a result he was forbidden during the Second Temple period not only to enter the Temple but even to step between the altar and the sanctuary (Mishnah Kelim 1:9).

My students were horrified. Weren’t we all considered "a kingdom of priests to Me, a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). How could the Torah, which teaches that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image), summarily disqualify certain people who merely had some physical differences?

We explored some of the responses offered by some “traditionalists”: That back in Torah times, physical deformities were considered punishments from God, which sometimes reflected moral sins. That just as the Honor Guard for a king must consist of the most good looking and strong soldiers, so too the kohanim who worked in the Holy Temple had a special immaculate uniform, and physically, would need certain uniformity in appearance. That priestly behavior personified dedication, proficiency, and efficiency and similarly their perfection in physical appearance stood as a quick and constant reminder that in our service to the Holy One, we must aim for perfection as well.

These explanations did not pacify our study group. Soon, the indignant young people exploded with righteous indignation at the Torah teaching. No one could make sense of the words.

I noticed one young person patiently raising his hand. He said this,

Nothing really can make this make sense. It just doesn’t feel right. But I wonder if there is an important lesson in here.

How many societies hide away people with disabilities, secreting them within the walls of their homes or putting them away into institutions? The Torah could have hidden these people behind the curtains in the center of the mishkan (Tabernacle), where the Israelite community could have easily pretended they did not exist.

Rather, Jewish tradition insisted that these leaders remain directly in the line of sight of the entire Israelite community, so that everyone would need to recognize and embrace the reality: that people with physical differences are people just like everyone else. Thus, the kohen was permitted to go everywhere else, into the other parts of the Temple area, and to "eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy" (Lev. 21:22).

I learned a lot that day from this young person.

That when they sat down with the rest of the kohanim to eat, the message of inclusion would be directly in the eyesight of all the people.

That God accepts everyone, including and especially people with physical (or emotional) differences, as part of am kadosh, the holy people.

And that it takes an open mind and a loving heart to see through the righteous indignation to find inclusion at the heart of our community.

Cross Posted on Zehlezeh

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Truth about Israel, Gaza, and Escalating Anti-Semitism: 7 Things To Do Right Now

View this Sermon as delivered

Yonina, My Israeli Soldier Niece

I have a niece, Yonina, who made aliyah and lives in Israel. Yonina serves as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces reserves. During this summer’s Gaza war, Yonina sat in a bunker on the Gaza border, receiving real time intelligence from multiple sources, directing and guiding troops as they made their way into and through Gaza. Just 26, Yonina is responsible for the safety, and thus, the life and potential death of many soldiers. This summer, I watched the war in Gaza through her eyes.

One night this summer, my phone buzzed at 2 am. I bolted awake. In instant messages, my niece confided in me her deepest fears. Yonina, who has always been a tower of courage and strength, wrote that she was worried about whether her desire to be with her family, to find passionate love, and to protect herself, might compromise her ability to protect her soldiers, the very people tasked with protecting the state of Israel. She asked me, her uncle, to tell her that everything was going to be all right.

I thought, “Who am I, lying safely here in California, to tell an Israeli kid going off to war that anything would be okay?” But she needed comfort and strength, so I texted the truth, “Yonina, you are one of the strongest people I know. In your short life, you have faced many challenges. And you have overcome them all. And you will with this one too.” “How can you not be afraid? It is good that you love life. It will help keep you focused. It will ensure that you give 110%. As you realize that war is anything but glorious, you become more human. You will feel more deeply than ever the need to take care of your troops, giving them the wisdom and courage so they can be careful and ethical when they go out into the field.”

Of course, this conversation happened before I knew about those 40 tunnels, dug under Israeli homes and kindergartens, built by Hamas with concrete originally donated by the world community for the purpose of building housing and hospitals. Those terrible tunnels hid arsenals of anesthesia-filled syringes, handcuffs, and motorcycles for the purpose of kidnapping and killing innocent Israeli civilians. Scary.

When Yonina texted me a week or so later, she seemed despondent. During the shift immediately before hers, terrorists popped up from a hidden tunnel and killed five Israeli soldiers. She wondered with heaviness about whether she might have been able to protect those soldiers, if only she had been on duty then. What a burden to carry. It broke my heart. And then it infuriated me, that so many Israeli youth must grapple with existential questions. She asked me, “What should I write in my pre-battle letter to my family, you know, the one they will get if I don't come back from this conflict?” My niece should instead be concerned with the direction of her career or how her date went on Saturday night.

Hamas Made the World A Lot Scarier

Yes, this summer, the world became a much scarier place for Yonina, for me, and for so many of you. Before services began, I invited you all to text me your feelings about the conflict between Israel and Gaza. As you all texted: [Here, I read texts sent by worshippers.] The Gaza war illuminated that darkness, and the evil that resides in the hearts of some dangerous people.

If you were on Facebook, Twitter or cable TV, you learned about the unimaginable, as Gaza’s ruling party Hamas shot rockets at Israel from school yards and hospitals grounds, from hotel parking lots, and residential neighborhoods. They deliberately placed their children in harm’s way. By digging tunnels, and rejecting 8 Israeli ceasefire offers, their actions led to battles that did not need to happen and to the deaths of 72 Israelis and 2,100 Gazans, deaths that should not have occurred… except that Israel was between a rock and a hard place.

Israeli leftist Amos Oz framed it this way to a German newspaper, “What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap, and starts shooting machine-gun fire into your nursery? What would you do if your neighbor across the street, digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or to kidnap your family?” (Philip Gourevitch, An Honest Voice in Israel, The New Yorker). That is why it is so astounding and infuriating that so many condemned Israel. Like every other nation, Israel fought to protect itself from incoming rocket fire and the constant threat of violence from the Gazan tunnels.

Yes, 2,100 Gazans died in the war this summer. 2,100 too many. Honest analysts have concluded that 1000 were likely combatants, fighters. As Jews, we mourn the deaths of each of the 72 Israelis who died defending the Jewish State. Simultaneously, we mourn the deaths of each innocent Gazan. The loss of Gazan life is tragic, especially because it resulted from the Hamas leadership provoking Israel to have to defend itself. Make no mistake, Hamas intentionally sacrificed Gazan civilians, as they have for years. I am angry at much of the media for falling into Hamas’ trap and blaming Israel for civilian deaths it tried to avoid (quoting Yossi Klein Halevi).

It gets worse. Israel safeguarded Israelis, with America’s steadfast help, by building the Iron Dome missile defense system. The IDF reported that more than 4,500 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel. Let’s do the math. Every rocket shot at Israel had a purpose, to kill, say, about 1 to 5 Israelis. The intent of those rockets, therefore, was to kill up to 25,000 civilians. THAT is the war crime that the world and that the United Nations should be condemning (paraphrasing David Suissa).

So when we reflect back on this war, think not only about the power politics of Hamas, Iran, Qatar, Egypt, and the United States. Think about Yonina, and the other people whose lives were turned upside down because they were called to defend the Jewish state. And think about a 24-year-old Max Steinberg, who grew up in Woodland Hills, whose life was sacrificed on the altar of Hamas’ contemptuous calculations that God still wants martyrs.

Let us also think about what the mothers in Jerusalem and the mothers in Gaza know only too well. That their children are too precious to go to an early grave; that if there were a way, they would embrace the path toward peace. Most Jews instinctively know that to be a Jew means to balance paradoxes – security and morality, realism and vision, self-defense and self-critique (quoting Yossi Klein Halevi).

Raw, Unadulterated Anti-Semitism

Sadly, Hamas is cynical and hate-filled, and its violence is fueling yet another wave of hatred that keeps spreading. This summer’s conflict in Gaza somehow gave permission to people worldwide to release their hatred, not just of Israel, but of all Jews.

American Jewish Committee's Lawrence Grossman recently wrote in The Hill, “since hostilities broke out between Israel and Gaza-based Hamas in early July, raw, unadulterated anti-Semitism at a level not seen since the Holocaust years has become commonplace on the streets of Europe and elsewhere. In England, about 100 anti-Semitic incidents were reported in July, double the expected number. In France, several pro-Hamas rallies that began peacefully degenerated into anti-Semitic mob scenes; in the course of one week, eight synagogues were attacked and cries of “Death to the Jews” and “Slit Jews’ throats” were heard. Roger Cukierman, president of French Jewry’s umbrella organization, emphasized, “They are not screaming, ‘Death to the Israelis’ on the streets of Paris. They are screaming, ‘Death to the Jews.’”
 A Jewish woman in Berlin told The New York Times that her friends were removing mezuzot from their doorposts for fear of being targeted by anti-Semites. The president of the Central Council of German Jews said, “You hear things like ‘the Jews should be gassed,’ ‘the Jews should be burned’— we haven’t had that in Germany for decades.”

Smaller Jewish communities are not immune. In Sweden, a Jewish woman wearing a Star of David necklace was beaten, but refused to report the incident to the police for fear of retaliation. And in Copenhagen, a Jewish school founded in 1805 had its windows shattered, and was spray-painted with anti-Semitic slogans (Lawrence Grossman, The Hill, Can opposition to Israel avoid anti-semitism? August 26, 2014).

There were hopeful moments, like July’s powerful statement by the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Italy. These three nations that once murdered Jews were now saying, loudly and officially, that "anti-Semitic agitation and hostility against Jews, attacks against people of Jewish faith and against synagogues, have no place in our societies.” They rightly recognized that anti-Semitism threatens not only Jews but the very fabric of European societies (AJC Welcomes Joint French, German, Italian Statement On Anti-Semitism, July 22, 2014).

It is time for us to recognize that this anti-Semitism is not about Israeli government policy or the failure to find a solution with the Palestinians. One can have disagreements with the Israeli government and its policies – I personally think most of the settlements need to be dismantled sooner rather than later – but even these policies do not account for the growing virulent anti-Semitism. When both Europe’s far left and the radical right are joined in common cause - the hatred of Jews - we need to be worried and vigilant.

7 Things to Do Right Now

So what do we do from here in America, in California, in Calabasas and Thousand Oaks: What can you and I do? I offer seven steps:

1. We must watch the words we use, calling out publicly dangerous hate language. To help us, I need to explain the origins of an ugly word, a word so horrid that no one should repeat it. Yet it has been repeated, most recently by a student in Calabasas who spewed it at another student, and, though others heard it, alarmingly, no one protested. This word becomes especially dangerous when young people give permission for its use.

The word is Kike. Kike was born on Ellis Island when some non-English speaking Jewish immigrants refused to sign their immigration entry-forms with the customary "X." They associated an X with the cross of Christianity. So instead, they drew a circle, which in Yiddish is kikel (pronounced ky-kul). Soon, immigration inspectors called those who signed with an "O," a kikel (which morphed into kike. Sadly, the very signature that came to mean freedom for so many Jews was turned by anti-Semites into a hateful slur. Simply put, this word is vulgar and we must teach our kids to protest its use.

2. To fight hate speech, we must learn this number: 4/20. To some 4/20 is a code-term that refers to using marijuana. But 4/20, April 20th, is also Adolf Hitler’s birthday. Around that date, anti-Semites and their na├»ve followers post heinous phrases like “finish the job” or “back to the gas chambers,” referring to the need to finish exterminating the Jews. Recently in nearby Oak Park, some students, both non-Jews AND Jews, repeated these phrases in small groups, then tweeted and retweeted them. We need to let our youth know that such language and ideas have no place in conversation. Explain to yours that hate words – against Jews or anyone else – have destructive power, even in jest. We must also banish the hateful words we use: shvartza, a Yiddish slur against blacks, faigele, a slur against gays, and even shikse, a put down against a non-Jewish woman. Let’s train ourselves never to participate in such speech, nor condone it with our silence.

3. Join the fight against anti-Semitism. Hate is best combated when we shine light into its darkness. As individuals, we lack strength to ensure that governments – local and national, our own and those overseas respond forcefully against anti-Semitism. But when we work together, we make a huge difference. Three Jewish organizations particularly do phenomenal work here – American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Joint Distribution Committee – respectively, the AJC, ADL and JDC. They collect data about anti-Semitism, publicize dangerous trends, urge and guide political leaders to speak out, and act in defense of Jews. Join one of these organizations this week, and support its work.

4. Work to perpetuate a strong America-Israel relationship. The Iron Dome missile defense system was developed with an influx of US Foreign Aid. While one might disagree with this policy or that – of the Israeli government or our own – true friendships like the one between America and Israel transcend temporary challenges. I support Israel through AIPAC, the America Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC works in each congressional district, all across the country, to ensure that we have a pro-Israel Congress. I invite you to join me this March in Washington DC for AIPAC’s National Policy Conference. Of course, there are many other pro-Israel, pro-peace organizations that do significant, meaningful work as well. Whichever you support, use its resources to continue to educate yourself and others about Israel. And let’s make sure to elect another pro-Israel Congress.

5.  This winter, the Jewish community will vote in the World Zionist Congress elections. The World Zionist Congress distributes billions of dollars to aid Jewish education and to influence the Jewish character of Israel. We progressive Jews want to show Israelis that Judaism can be open, pluralistic, egalitarian. We want to ensure that Israel has healthy Jewish spirituality that our kind of Reform Judaism has to offer. This is important. The very character of Israeli society is at stake. Every adult Jew is eligible to vote, but you must register first. Please pledge to register and vote later this year. The vote happens later; but you need to begin the process now.

6.  Jewish community creates Jewish pride. If we want the next generation to love Israel, to understand why Judaism is beautiful, and to understand why anti-Semites are wrong, we need to invest our time, energy, and money in Jewish communities. Every significant study has shown that synagogues are the most successful gateway into Jewish knowledge, connection and pride.

If you are part of the partnership we call Congregation Or Ami, then thank you for investing in the Jewish present and future. If you are not part Or Ami’s partnership, please consider what it means to our Jewish people to have a community like this, that is ensuring the Jewish future by educating the young, engaging the teens, connecting the adults, advocating for Israel, and vocally fighting the hatred in our world. When you are done thinking, please join a synagogue. Join Or Ami.

7.  Visit Israel, and take your family and friends there. We best understand the Jewish state, the dangers it faces, and the amazing place it is, when we set foot on the holy ground. Cantor Doug and I are leading two trips in the next 18 months. A trip for adults in April 2015, and a multigenerational trip in July 2016. Tour information on our website. Sign up soon.

We WILL Stand Up for Israel!

Listen, this discussion has been intense, serious, and perhaps frightening to some. But at its root, it is hopeful. We can transform the reality, because we Jews are notorious for optimistic action. Our Jewish national anthem is Hatikvah, which means, “the hope.” On Chanukah, the longest, darkest day of the year, we light candles, and put them in our windows, to shine light into the world.

So even as we remember the young people, like Yonina, her soldiers, and the awesome responsibility on their shoulders, and when we think about the young boys and girls growing up in Israel, in Europe, and here in the Valleys, let’s make sure they know that we are taking this seriously and determined to act.

We won’t stand by idly while our Israeli brothers and sisters bleed. We will support Israel’s right to defend herself. Yes, we will stand up for Israel. And we will stand up against anti-Semitism.

And then we will pray, with all our hearts. We pray as did a young Doug Cotler, now our cantor, who happened to be in Israel during the Six Day War in June 1967. He recalls with passion the moment when Israel announced it had recaptured the Old City of Jerusalem, which for years was under Jordanian rule and inaccessible to Jews. Cantor Doug joined with a quarter of a million other Jews, climbing that hill up to Jerusalem to visit the Kotel, the Wailing Wall. So many people freely visiting the Kotel for the first time in almost 2000 years.

When they arrived, people wrote their prayers on tiny scraps of paper, and put them into cracks of the wall. So many prayers were written that day, that they fell from the cracks, covering the ground like a few inches of snow. Cantor Doug also wrote his prayer that day 40 years ago, about that climb up Jerusalem’s hill to the Kotel, about the hope, never-ending, for our people and our future. This was his prayer. Shir Hamaalot. A song of ascent.

This sermon was first delivered on Rosh Hashana Day 5775|2014

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Abraham Failed God's Test, but God Loved him Anyway!

Each Rosh Hashanah, we read the horrid tale of the Akedah (Genesis 22), the almost sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Commentators throughout the ages characterize this story as an example of the heights of faith. Abraham loved God so much he was willing to give up the child he waited so long to bear.

But in as much as this might have been a test of Abraham, I read the story as a clear indication that Abraham failed the test.

Consider this: Did God really command Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering? Read closely. According to one commentary, Midrash Tanhuma, it all hinges on one word – olah. In the Torah, God said to Abraham v’haaleihu sham l’olah, bring up Isaac as an olah. The Hebrew word olah, comes from the root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning, “to rise up.”

Must olah here mean, “sacrifice,” as in the smoke of the sacrifice rises up? Or might it be connected rather to a more familiar word aliyah, also from the Hebrew root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning “spiritual uplift?” In this reading, God only said, “raise up your son with an appreciation of your devotion to Me.” Perhaps Abraham was so dazzled to be speaking to God that he became confused. What if he misunderstood God’s intended purpose?

Rashi, the greatest Biblical commentator of all time, also hangs his interpretation on the same word. He explains (on Genesis 22:2), perhaps God was saying, “When I said to you ‘Take your son’… I did not say to you, sh’chateihu, ‘slaughter him,’ but only ha’aleihu, ‘bring him up.’ Now that you have brought him up, introduce him to Me, and then take him back down.” Instead of wanting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God really only wanted him to spend some spiritual “quality time” with his son. Had Abraham only paid close attention, he might have spared himself, Isaac, and Sarah a significant amount of stress and pain.

But in a strange twist, the angel of God who stopped Abraham from killing his son responds with love, not rebuke. God praised Abraham. Why would God praise him if Abraham misunderstood the command? Perhaps God, through the angel, reaffirms to Abraham how much God loves him, but also signals that Abraham and his followers should no longer employ cruel or intimidating means to show their love for God.

This need not, however, be understood as condoning Abraham’s actions. Rather, the angel’s words remind me of that parent who walked into his freshly painted house. Dad is greeted at the door by his young son who, with a big smile on his face, says, “Daddy, come see how much I love you.” The boy brings his father into the next room and proceeds to proudly show him a picture drawn in magic marker on the living room wall. It was a red heart, inside of which were the words, “Daddy, I love you.” How does a parent respond to such a display of love, especially after spending thousands of dollars to paint the house just right? Most of us would yell, and yell loudly. But if we stopped first to think about it, we might say, with tears in our eyes, “I love you too, my son. Try to use paper next time. And you may not write on the walls. But, I love you too!” Similarly, through the words of the angel, God, the patient One, who cherishes Abraham, teaches love and forgiveness as an example for future generations.

Now consider this… Prior to the Akedah, each encounter between God and Abraham occurs in direct one-on-one conversations. But from this point on, God never again speaks to Abraham directly. All further communication is passed through an angel. Why? Because Abraham simultaneously passed and failed the test. He showed his love of God, yes, but he employed violent means to pursue that love. The use of an intermediary – the angel – proclaims a message for future generations: Abraham really didn't listen to God’s teachings of compassion, did he?

Originally posted in 2007

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Being a Big Kid at Summer Camp (URJ Camp Newman)

I sit here up at Faculty Row of the URJ Camp Newman (Santa Rosa, CA) as Shabbat evening comes to an end. We just finished enjoying an inspirational all camp service, delicious dinner by Tammy, awesome brownies for dessert, a raucous song session under the stars and an energetic (read "exhausting" hour of Israeli dance.

Now Jewish composer and singer Dan Nichols and Fresno's Rabbi Rick Winer are leading the gathered group of faculty in singing old favorite Jewish songs from summers gone by.

Still dressed in our Shabbat whites, we faculty are seemingly reliving our younger days as campers and camp staff. Really though, our faculty Shabbat gathering - a unique combination of singing, laughing, noshing (eating a lot of small bites to duck the big calories), and joking - evokes a unique kind of camp l'dor vador (from generation to generation).

We all grew up in one of the camps of the Union for Reform Judaism, where our hearts and outlooks were shaped in deeply meaningful ways for all time. Now we each dedicate precious downtime in our professional lives volunteering at camp to ensure that the subsequent generations of Jewoah youth enjoy an updated version of vibrant living Judaism to sustain them in the years ahead.

We were kids back then, singing, struggling, loving camp and embracing our Judaism. Now most of us have kids here at Camp Newman, (our own and those of our congregational family) who are similarly singing, struggling, loving camp and embracing their Judaism.

How fortunate are we that we get to see the relevance of this 24/7 Judaism and it's purposeful youth engagement, even as our children move from camper to counselor and beyond.

Of course we come to camp for more than just nourishing our own souls and those of our children. We come because at camp we quickly rediscover the unvarnished bountiful beauty that is our Jewish tradition. We practice our creativity here at Camp Newman with (and on) 1400 youth and college students, and then return home to our congregations and organizations prepared to reenergize them the same way.

Too soon havdala will arrive, and with it the end of Shabbat. May the light of the havdala candle remind us always of how interconnected are our Jewish homes; our house, congregation, Israel and camp form one seamless whole that brings warmth and holiness to life. And our lives.

May it be so always. Shabbat shalom.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Experiencing Israel with Amazing People - Sydney Epstein's Birthright Experience

Or Ami college student Sydney Epstein writes:

On May 22, I jetted off for what turned out to be the most incredible experience. Birthright allows you to reconnect with your Jewish heritage in the Holy Land itself. After a long 12-hour plane ride along with 40 other peers, I finally landed in Israel. Immediately following, we began ascending the fortress of Masada and floating in the Dead Sea! Not a bad start!

Throughout the trip, we explored every inch of the country. We traveled all through the desert and northern Israel. For me, the trip was not only about the sights we saw and the places we visited. It was about making new Jewish friends and connecting with my peers on a new level. They truly made this trip an unforgettable experience. When people would ask me, "What has been your favorite part of Birthright," I would give the same answer: the people I got to experience Israel with.

Throughout the trip, I realized that 10 days was way too short! In the end, I extended my stay in Tel Aviv. I could not bear the thought of leaving Israel so soon! Although this was my second time in Israel, Birthright gave me a whole new perspective about the country. These past 10 days really opened my eyes up to the beauty and history Israel has to offer. I highly encourage anyone to take advantage of this incredible opportunity!!

Thank you Rabbi Paul Kipnes for helping me get on the trip of my choice!

Did your Or Ami child go on a birthright trip? We'd love to feature his/her experience here. Send me an email and we will reach out to him/her.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Rabbi, Can We Talk about God? Pelted with Questions from Teen Campers

Ever have one of those moments when your child reaches out to you and all you really want to do is collapse from exhaustion? It happens at home and it happens at camp. So what do you do?

I am up here at URJ Camp Newman, the Reform movement camp in Santa Rosa, CA, leading our delegation of 42 people from Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) for Jewish summer fun. After a full fantastic day of spiritual hikes, meditation teaching, service planning and camper counseling, I was hot, tired and worn out.

Rabbi, Want to Talk about God?
Yet, no sooner did I sit down for a little quiet time when I heard someone call out, "We're having a conversation here about God. Rabbi, do you want to join us?"

Looking up, I saw three of our young people from Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) sitting at a picnic table smiling at me.

I had just finished an intense conversation with a staff member about the slow death of her grandmother as she described being there as the last breath left her body, followed by a phone call with a dear friend who is now facing a similar situation with her mother. I was looking forward to putting my feet up. But I responded from my heart and not from my weary bones, saying "How can I turn down such a wonderful invitation like that!?"

So three of us - my wife Michelle, a faculty artist and I - joined Lisa, Matthew and Ethan for the best experience of my day.

Pelting Us with Questions
They asked so many questions, which I answered initially with "Well, what do you all think?" Only after they answered would I share my thoughts.

How many of the teens at temple do you think are really atheists? (Most, I suggested were agnostics, unsure about God, but you can be a great Jew even if you don't believe in God.) 
How do we pray if all the prayers seem to offer only one view of what God is? (Read the prayers as poetry and then mine them as metaphors. Or supplement the traditional prayers with kavannot (spiritual interpretations) of your own. Or let's write some prayers which speak to a spectrum of beliefs. The rabbis of old did it; you can too!) 
Do you believe in God with the white beard and the throne on high? (Once I imagined God that way, until I learned that there are so many different Jewish God ideas - I blogged about 18 Jewish God concepts - which are more in keeping with what I feel is closer to my truth. Let's find some time later and I'll teach you about them.)

What's your favorite God concept? (The internet as a metaphor for God. Not a being, but an existence, a presence. The One without end is here, there and everywhere, accessible if only you open a browser - your heart or soul - and allow yourself to connect in.).

Time Flies When You're Talking God
We lost track of time as the campers asked questions, offered answers to each other, and thought deeply about the reality of The Holy One. When their counselors came around to collect these campers, we all expressed sadness that this moment had to end. And yet, we smiled at each other, knowing that we had taken our relationships and our spiritual journeying to the next level.

"Let's do this again!" suggested one of the campers. "Wouldn't miss it for anything," I responded.

Why do I Come to Camp Newman each Summer? 
Because in the midst of the long days, chance encounters quickly become deep conversations, allowing this rabbi the opportunity to elevate and nurture meaningful Jewish spirituality. I cannot wait for the next conversation.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Shavuot: Celebrating the Gift We Keep Receiving

We parents love to shower our children with gifts.

The appearance of a wrapped presents can stop even the most rambunctious children in their tracks. After a quick intake of breath, eyes go wide and squeals of excitement quickly follow. Some children then engage in frenzied activity, tearing off the wrapping paper, while others slowly and methodically remove every piece of tape, savoring the splendor of anticipation. When the contents beneath the wrapping paper are revealed, delight and happiness soon follow.

And then come the thanks. Nothing quite compares to the hug of a kid who just received an unexpected gift. All of it – a kiss, words of thanks, that smile from ear to ear – can melt even the most hard hearted of us.

Gifts Represent of Underlying Emotions of Love 
The giving of a gift testifies to the love we feel for someone. A present can convey materially that which we sometimes have difficulty expressing verbally. That I value you. That I love you. That making you happy makes me happy.

In most American Jewish homes, presents are shared on Chanukah, a practice that evolved from the tradition of giving gelt (coins) and from this holiday's proximity to Christmas. In Jewish homes in Israel and elsewhere, presents are given on Rosh Hashana to celebrate the New Year, and on Pesach to celebrate our people's return to freedom.

Shavuot as a Festival of Gift Giving and Receiving
Perhaps the most traditional, yet under-celebrated, opportunity for gift giving occurs on Shavuot. Originally an agricultural festival marking the conclusion of the grain harvest, Shavuot is also known as Chag ha-Katsir (Festival of Reaping in Exodus 23:16) and was celebrated in Biblical times by bringing the bikkurim (first fruits) to the Temple in Jerusalem. These gifts to God were brought from among the Seven Species for which the Land of Israel is praised: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (Deut. 8:8).

Over time, Shavuot morphed through rabbinic creativity into a festival celebrating the ultimate gift from God. Wrapped up in the multi-sensory story of our people's experience at Mt Sinai (Exodus 18:18ff) - ground-shaking, light-flashing, thunder-booming, Shavuot relives Matan Torah (the gift of Torah), the moment that God gave Torah to the Jewish people.

We teach that Holy One loves our people so much that God gave us the most precious gift – next to our children, of course – and that is the Torah.

Anticipating Shavuot, parents can connect children spiritually to our Jewish people through the joy of receiving a gift.

Celebrate Gift Giving
Read the story of the giving of Torah in Exodus 18:1-19:15. Flash the lights in the bedroom to simulate lighting, bang on walls or pots and pans to recall the thunder. Shake your body all over for earth shaking fun.

Tell Your Children (of all ages) This:
You are the recipient of one of the greatest gifts ever. It is our Torah. Written in a scroll, our Torah represents a collection of stories, teachings, morals, values, rules of how to live, ideas about God and so much more. It is a gift from God, a sign that you are lovable and loved. Torah is your inheritance, that which you receive from me (and if appropriate, from your other parent), from your grandparents and others before us. You are part of shalshelet hakabbalah (the unbroken chain of receiving Torah), passed down midor lador (from generation to generation).  
Torah is a gift to be preciously cared for and repeatedly unwrapped. Torah is filled with stories and ideas that are gifts to the whole world.

Torah is yours. So don't wait to long. Claim you place among our people.

Then find a way to help your child receive the gift of Torah.

  • Give your child a nice gift that reflects Torah and/or Judaism. Tell him or her that since today we celebrate the other wonderful gift today, the gift of Torah, today you want him or her to enjoy this Torah related gift.
  • Discover a new book and read it together. Torah, and the study of it, made the Jewish people Am Hasefer (people of the book). Dedicate yourselves to reading the wonderful books from PJ Library or seek out other Jewish books to enhance Jewish connections.
  • Watch the Torah portion cartoons on, which take complex ideas and make them accessible to all ages. Commit to watching them regularly.
  • Eat cheesecake. Once Torah was given, it became clear that our ancestors had no kosher meat. So the people ate dairy for a few days. Traditionally Jews ate blintzes. But, in our family, we prefer cheesecake, in as many flavored as possible, symbolizing the 70 difference languages in which Torah was given.
  • Make a dairy dinner together creating as many dishes as you can. Consider the many ways grilled cheese and macaroni and cheese can be prepared.
  • Go visit a temple and ask if you and your family can hold the Torah. A gift given not just to the rabbis and teachers, Torah is an inheritance for us all. So go claim your birthright (you may need to schedule an appointment first).