A Comment on How Difficult it is to FIGURE THINGS OUT

In the field of Jewish ethics, Reb Simha Bunum suggests a way for the human being to balance humility and self worth:

“Rabbi Bunum said to his disciples: “Everyone must have two pockets, so he can reach into the one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to the words:’For my sake was the world created,’ and in his left:’ I am earth and ashes.”

Anochi Afar va-efer  (from Gen. 18:27)


Bishvili nivra ha-olam (from Sanhedrin 37a)

[from Volume 2 of Buber's Tales of the Hasidim, p. 249]

The comic strip “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal,” by Zach Weiner has a slightly more complicated take on the same basic idea:

Filed under: Embodied Torah, Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior, Theology - The Thought that Drives our Practice Tagged: ethics, humility, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Simha Bunum, SMBC

On the Death of An Enemy

What do you do and say when your enemy falls?

Do you follow the advice of Proverbs 24:17, ” If your enemy falls, do not exult; If he trips, let your heart not rejoice?”
Or do you follow the advice of Proverbs 11:10, ” When the wicked perish there are shouts of joy.”

Do you follow the practice of the Pesah seder and spill drops of wine and tears over the loss of life?
Or do you sigh with relief that a man dedicated to evil and death has been eliminated from our world?

Do you bless God, the righteous judge?
Do you bless God who breaks the enemy and humbles the arrogant?

Did you rejoice, or would you have rejoiced on this day 66 years ago when Hitler’s death was announced?
Did you take a breath in wonder at the coincidence of Osama Bin Laden’s death on that anniversary, on the oh-so-grim day that we remember the Shoah?

Along with that sign of relief and that grateful breath, let me just say that I am grateful to our President and our armed forces for their persistence. May it be understood as a message to Islamic fascists that attacks against our country will not go unpunished.

Filed under: Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior Tagged: death, Hitler, Osama Bin Ladin, Shoah

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – May/2011

Conservative Judaism has been in the news in the past couple of months, but it hasn’t been entirely good news.  The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism has approved a new strategic plan intended to revive the “brand.”  The Rabbinical Assembly devoted a number of sessions at their recent convention to such titles as, “Thriving Against Difficult Odds,” and “Creating a Culture of Success.”  The overall picture being presented is one of a aging and dying movement trying to redefine itself.

It’s not that I believe that we shouldn’t be self-critical.  On the contrary, as individuals, as an institution and as a movement, we only learn and grow by honest evaluation and mindful change.  I am concerned not about the criticism but about the sense of panic surrounding the critical questions.  Hysteria does not lead to useful deliberation and decision making.  Panic leads to adopting program because they are successful for someone else, not because they advance our particular mission and vision.  Hysteria leads to widespread cutting of programs and budget in order to balance the budget based on saving money, not based on focused attention to our raison d’être.

We need to have and express a sense of passion about our mission.  If we are not sufficiently devoted the community that our synagogue has built, we will not be fully capable of making informed decisions about what is ikar and what is tafel, what is central and what is peripheral.

One of my colleagues was quoted in an article about the challenges facing the conservative movement, saying that his 1500 seat Sanctuary for his 700 household congregation averaged 100 people on a Shabbat morning.  He has an enormous building built on a grand scale for a 1200-1500 household congregation sitting virtually empty during the week.

Fortunately, due to the wisdom of our board and a measure of good luck, we are not faced with such grave immediate questions.  We have been able to rent out our building so that it is generating income during the times that it would have been sitting empty.  Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the Board and the Congregation to continue looking at a range of possibilities for what our congregation might be in the future.  How might we encourage more people to affiliate?  What if our membership increases – what more might we do with the additional income and people?  Why do people leave the congregation (other than for the obvious reasons of death and moving out of town)?  What will happen if our membership decreases?  What will happen if one of our renters leaves?  What will we do to replenish our building fund balance if large scale expenses, such as replacing a roof, deplete the fund?

I believe in Congregation Ahavas Israel and am committed to being a part of its long term success.  I don’t share the sense of panic regarding the greying and shrinking of the Conservative movement.  I believe if we stick to our core mission, of creating a vibrant egalitarian Conservative Jewish community by helping each individual follow his/her spiritual path using traditional Jewish practice; that we can address any situation that arises calmly and sensibly by remembering that we are a community which embodies Torah, making every decision and every act reflect our commitment to Torah.

Filed under: Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi Tagged: Conservative Judaism

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – April/2011

I’m posting this a bit early, because I’m also going to post an article from the Jerusalem Post magazine that perfectly illustrates my point.

No holiday encourages fanatical Jewish behavior like Passover.  It’s not bad that many people keep kosher for Pesah much more strictly than they keep kosher the rest of the year.  However, the almost pathological behavior of scouring the home of every microscopic crumb of leavening can obscure the beauty of the meaning of the holiday.  I hope the following exchange will help you enjoy a serious Seder without having exhausted yourself by its preparation.

Dear Rebbe

Question: We had two wonderful seders, but this year particularly, it seemed that the last two days of preparation – Sunday, a day which lasted twelve hours as we turned the kitchen over and Monday, the day we spent in preparation for the first seder – left us crippled with exhaustion and pain.  It was very much like forced labor with this uncompromising deadline.  I kept thinking, “why did we leave the fleshpots of Egypt? Let’s return to Egypt where we eat for free.”  And then I remembered Rush Limbaugh’s warning that socialism is slavery and nothing comes for free, so I put my head down and continued scrubbing.

But a serious thought crossed my mind.  Is this our age showing?  What will Pesah preparations be like when we are seventy or eighty and have no children to do this work.  As it was, at age 63, I found myself incapable of davening either day.  I tried, but I couldn’t focus my mind.  I don’t understand how one can do it all, I certainly can’t. I think even we lived next to the shul, I would not have had the strength to make it through the davening.

We had a student at our table on Tuesday.  He doesn’t observe much, but he goes to shul on major holidays and his self-image is one of a Jew who is loyal to our traditions.  Once we got to the meal, he took out his cell phone and started to send a text!  I told him to put it away and he sheepishly set it aside.  I understand that teachers in classrooms have similar problems with students who can’t seem to let go of their cell phones. But I was surprised to see its appearance at my seder!

Answer: I think you have bought into the Orthodox trend to make Pesah more and more difficult by multiplying the humrot, the ways to be more and more restrictive in Jewish observance.  Marisa and I, over the past several years, have cut way back on the cleaning, returning to the Mishnaic model of Pesah.  You clean the rooms that you eat in – you don’t need to search out and sterilize every surface of the house.  You rely on biur hametz, the ritual destruction and nullification of hametz, so if you miss a few crumbs here and there, you have not endangered your eternal souls with karet, spiritual excommunication.  Our kitchen doesn’t look like a 1950′s spaceship, covered in $100 worth of aluminum foil.  We clean counters and pour boiling water on them, relying on the fact that we don’t cook on the counters or eat food off of them.  Self cleaning ovens are great.  We are relaxed about the refrigerator – hametz doesn’t contaminate like the bubonic plague.  We don’t serve a 6 course gourmet feast – 3 courses is enough! – so we can focus more on the hagaddah and less on the food.  We, especially on the 2nd night, are not hung up on the hagaddah.  At the proper candlelighting time, we tell the story of Pesah in a very abbreviated way.  In keeping with the mishnah’s instructions to tell the story from degradation to redemption, we basically tell the story by reading the key passages of the Hagaddah from Deuteronomy 26:5-8, reciting the plagues, the teaching of Rabban Gamliel and the beginning of Hallel.  Before candlelighting, we do the 4 questions and 4 children and singing songs.

Regarding the student – before the Seder, send out a note to your guests making your expectations clear.  Here’s a sample, sent by one of my colleagues, Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff:

To our Seder Guests

I am delighted — and honored — that all of you have agreed to join me at this year’s Passover/Pesah Seder.

For me, the Seder has always been one of the highlights of the year — and one of the most important rituals of the Jewish faith.  It is a reminder, to me, of the fact that we cannot change history, but to a very large extent, we can control its impact on us, so that memory becomes a springboard to move us forward toward better times, not a trap, to hold us prisoners of the past.  We understand that no one can be told to “forget and move on,” but we can help others, and ourselves, understand HOW to remember, so that our memories become a blessing, not a curse, and history becomes part of a rich and treasured heritage, that reminds us of the hope we must have for the future….  And so, at the seder, we remember stories of Israelite slavery in Egypt. But we learn not to hate Egypt, but instead, to hate slavery…and value freedom.  We learn from our memories of pain not to hate others, but to reach out to them, including all those treated like strangers, or feel like strangers, so that their pain might be less.

This is a reminder, in part, of the fact that the essence of the seder is discussion.  The evening is based on the Biblical verses that command us to tell the story.  “Haggadah,” the book that helps us remember the story and its traditions, comes from the Hebrew word for “telling.”  “Seder,” which means “order,” reminds us that there is a traditional order to the evening’s discussion, but, as the Haggadah states, “the person who elaborates is to be admired.”  In other words, no two seders are ever alike, because all those involved elaborate in terms of what the very ideas of slavery and freedom mean to them, and how their individual memories can come together with the memories of the Jewish people — or humanity itself — so that, as we remember, we share the lessons we have learned from the past, and then join together to work for the future.

As I look forward to seeing all of you, here are a few “house-keeping” notes:

“Bringing” do’s and don’t’s.  Please do NOT bring any food, drink, or flowers.  The laws of Passover food and drink are so complicated, and we are stocking up with so much, that there is no room for anything else (even flowers!).  However, DO BRING something: bring a story you might have of another Passover seder — or another holy day that taught you something that has helped you struggle with values and ideas, and with life; bring a question — about Passover, about Judaism, or about faith; bring an insight about the different kinds of slavery that still exist, and what freedom really means…. These will be gifts that all of us will treasure, for the seder, and for the future. Just as we focus on freedom from Egypt at our Seder, we also focus on freedom from various other enslaving devices of modern day society, such as cellphones and texting devices.  I ask that you refrain from using such devices at the table, so we can focus on being fully present for each other.

Filed under: Celebrations on the Jewish calendar, Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi Tagged: Kashrut, Passover, Pesah

Purim and Secrets

An opinion piece by Rabbi Steven Greenberg (Orthodox), originally published in the American Israelite, February 10, 2011.

Letter to the Editor, Feb. 10

February 10th, 2011 | Section: Opinion

Dear Editor,

Purim is a holiday that celebrates the power of secrets and their revelation; it is, in effect, the holiday of “coming out.” The rabbis of the Talmud mark Purim explicitly as the festival of masks, which calls for nothing less than an unmasking of ourselves and ultimately, of God. This is the one time of the year when drinking a bit too much is a “mitzvah” because, in their words, “the wine goes in and the secrets come out.” If there way any day that might be employed by gay Jews to signify the meaning of coming out, the fast of Esther ending in the celebration of Purim is it.

The story begins with all its characters in lavish concealment. Each of them manage a powerful public persona while hiding an inner secret that if revealed would seem to undo them. There is a sustained tension between what characters are and what they seem to be that moves the plot forward and it is the careful unraveling of disguises that makes for salvation.

King Achashverosh, according to tradition, was not of royal blood; he had married into Persian royalty. Vashti was the true Persian princess and because she refuses to take off her royal robes she is banished or killed. She is the only one who refuses to dress up (or in this case down) as something she is not. Achashverosh has risen to royal power, but he is not royal material. He is a fool and a degenerate, a common lout dressed up in royal robes. He is also terribly insecure, anxious to build his political support and fearful of being challenged or manipulated.

Esther and Mordechai are closet Jews. Mordechai is a statesman who is known in the king’s court but he does not flaunt his Jewish identity. Indeed, it is perhaps for this very reason that he warns Esther not to reveal her identity. The people perceive Esther as a lovely Persian woman who has become a Persian queen.

Haman, like the king, rises to power with little, if any, merit. His secrets are his bloated ego and his hunger for royal power. Haman conceals all this from the king, including his irrational hatred of Mordechai.

The turn in the plot occurs when Mordechai is forced to choose between his inner and outer identities. Is he a Jew or a Persian noble? If he refuses to bow down to Haman, he will almost certainly lose his status among the Persian elite. If he bows, he understands that he will lose his inner Jewish self. In this moment of reckoning, Mordechai recognizes himself as a Jew and refuses to bow. The story isn’t clear as to

how Mordechai’s secret is found out. Someone tells someone who tells Haman that this rude fellow is a Jew, and Haman begins his plot to revenge himself of Mordechai and his people.

Mordechai realizes that he must turn his secret inside out. He must now bear witness to the inner truths. He sits at the gate of the palace in sack cloth, a bold and public expression of his internal state of affairs no longer concealed in beautiful robes. Mordechai’s self-expression sets in motion the unmasking of Esther, then of Haman, and finally of Achashverosh.

It is, however, Esther’s moment of courage that carries the most dramatic turn of story. She is at first resistant. Her coming to the king uninvited is mortally dangerous. Moreover, even if he is willing to hear her out, she has no reason to think that he will not side with Haman against her. Her cousin presses her not to try to save herself by passing. Esther reveals her secret deftly while aware of all the risks and uncertain of the outcomes.

What does all this drama between revealed and concealed selves say to us? Of course, the Book of Esther could be read as a midrash on Jewish life in the diaspora. How we conceal and reveal ourselves as Jews, is a diaspora story.

But there is also a more personal journey described. In many ways we are all Marranos, hiding behind our various masks and robes. What can we glean from Esther to help us manage the interplay between our inner and outer lives? Can Mordechai teach us something about the search for wholeness? At the end of the story all the inner truths come to light. As the story unfolds, there seems to be a redemptive quality in self-expression. When all is revealed, Esther becomes a powerful queen and Mordechai the king’s most trusted counselor. Even Achashverosh seems to achieve a more royal demeanor. Each of these fuller identities was achieved by reconciling the inner and outer persons.

The story is also about the need to protect a life apart from the public eye. As Esther enters the king’s palace Mordechai warns her not to reveal her identity. Later he implores her to do so. It seems that there is a right and wrong time to reveal the self. Perhaps the story is about the dynamics of identity that cannot escape a tension between expression and inhibition. We are who we are not only by our self- revelations, but by our careful nurturing of a private world.

As well, not all inner lives are equal. Haman uses his disguise for singularly destructive ends, and is ultimately destroyed by his inner self. Haman falls on Esther’s couch revealing more than an urge for power. Mordechai is revealed by his principles; Haman by his hubris and his libido. At the perfect moment, Esther reveals herself as a

Jew and saves the Jewish people. Though the war between the inner and outer worlds is over, there is no clear victory of one self over another. Instead there is a new and diverse wholeness, an integration of mask and man.

The rabbis describe the God of the Book of Esther as a hidden God, a God who dances in between the revealed and the hidden, patient and waiting for the right moment to burst forth. The name of Esther in Hebrew means, “I will hide,” which is nothing less than God’s invitation to us to start looking for him. We too, find our journey in both inward and outward movements. Often we work behind the scenes nurturing a life apart, a sense of privacy and clarity. And when the moments come to stand for one’s inner truths, for principle, or for one’s people, then we must turn inside out and witness, loud and proud and sure.

The time has come for a National Jewish Coming Out Day. The fast of Esther may seem a bit austere for such a commemoration, but actually it possesses a potent acknowledgment of the fears and the dangers of those in the closet and holds a place for the confusion and disruption that the coming out of a loved one can have for family and friends.

Those actually using the day to come out may indeed wish to employ the fast in order to center themselves in clarity, prayer and soulful preparation. Perhaps in those last moments of the Fast of Esther, just before the reveling of Purim begins, it is the right time to start telling the truth. Others may wish to skip the strum and drang and come out to friends and family on the day of Purim, as a celebration of Esther’s courage. In either case, the moment is perfect for the taking off of masks and conveying, perhaps for the first time, that our story is a Jewish one.

Rabbi Steven Greenberg

Filed under: Embodied Torah

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – March/2011

My colleague Rabbi Brad Artson gave a talk to rabbis recently in which he said that rabbis need to get over their traditional aversion to dealing with congregational financial issues.  Fundraising and other financial issues in an institution of Torah are as sacred as the study of Torah itself. Therefore, for the second month in a row, I find myself writing about how we make decisions about giving.

These thoughts were sparked by an article in the Jerusalem Post about the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of the top 50 givers in 2010.  Five of the top six are Jewish, and at least 19 of the top 53 (there were three ties) are Jewish.

While Jews have reason to be proud of the accomplishments of some of our fellow members of the tribe, we also have cause for concern.  George Soros and Michael Bloomberg, numbers 1 and 2 on the list who gave a combined total of about $600 million, less than $2 million of that went to Jewish causes.  Overall, Jews give only about 25% of their charitable gifts to Jewish causes.

While I am not arguing that 100% of our giving should go to Jewish causes, I pose a question:  If Jews do not give to UJC, the Synagogue, JNF, the Jewish Braille Institute, Israel Guide Dogs for the Blind, Hadassah Hospital, and other worthy Jewish causes, who will?  Doesn’t it make more sense for 75% of our giving to stay within the “family” rather than only 25%?  When we give to relief efforts, such as the Haitian earthquake, the 2004 Tsunami in East Asia, Hurricane Katrina, we like to channel our money through Jewish organizations.

As you are doing your taxes for 2010, take a careful look at your charitable giving.  Ask yourself whether it reflects the religious and communal priorities of your life to which you aspire.  Ask yourself whether you have paid enough attention to the institutions which nurtured and continue to nurture your Jewish identity, which take care of Jews in need all around the world.  Imagine how different our Jewish world would be if even half that the $3.3 billion given by the top 50 had gone to Jewish causes.

Filed under: Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi, Tzedakah/Gemilut Hasadim - The Embodied Torah of Giving Tagged: Philanthropy, Tzedakah

Purim and Environmentalism

I was just reading an article about “being green” (reducing, recycling, etc.) and it got me thinking about the carnival prizes we give out at our Purim carnival.  I’ve been to many events like this where the kids win all kinds of plastic toys that end up broken and in the trash within a few days.  Is there another prize idea we can offer that is more environmental, in keeping with our Jewish values?

There are many environmentally sensitive prizes in keeping with Jewish values.  For example:

  • Money – each dollar bill personally signed by the rabbi!
  • A card that says “A donation has been made in your name to the Congregation Ahavas Israel endowment fund.”
  • Books (a bit expensive, but what a statement it would be if every winner received a $70 Etz Hayim Humash)
  • A FREE trip to Israel (the fine print says that they have to be 18-25, and apply via the Birthright Israel website …)
  • A little piece of papers that says “Congratulations, success is its own reward!”
  • An easily broken paper toy that ends up in the recycling instead of the trash.
  • A kosher chicken.  For the vegetarians, a hard boiled egg.  For the vegans, a beet.

Any other suggestions?

Filed under: Celebrations on the Jewish calendar, Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior Tagged: Environmentalism, Purim

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – February, 2011

I am reprinting this month a bulletin article written by my colleague Rabbi Richard Hammerman.  I have added a few comments at the end.


Did you ever think, even for a moment, that, “If I wasn’t Jewish, and didn’t have to belong to a synagogue, I would save so much money?” At Church you can just get away with throwing a few bills into the basket- and take care of your conscience and your weekly religious obligations. Right?  It turns out that assumption is wrong.

According to a survey by Josh Nathan-Kazis published in “The Forward” this past September, “Jewish and Christian religious institutions appear to raise about the same amount per member, despite the fact that church giving is voluntary and synagogues charge membership dues.”

Kazis continues, “The amount raised per individual member is very similar between synagogues and churches. But the level of participation is quite different: While synagogues require roughly the same amount of dues from each of their members, church giving does not appear to be so evenly distributed.

“Take Ahavath Achim, a Conservative Jewish synagogue in Atlanta, and Church of the Heavenly Rest, an Episcopal church in Manhattan. The two congregations are broadly comparable: Both serve slightly more than 1,000 middle- and upper-middle class households, have a multimillion-dollar endowment, employ about a dozen people and operate on an annual budget of $2.7 million.

“Both draw around half their income from regular fees paid by members. But, like virtually all American churches, Heavenly Rest does not charge dues. Like most synagogues, Ahavath Achim does.  At Ahavath Achim, those fees are assigned by the synagogue, with each family paying up to $2,100 per year. Annual pledges at Heavenly Rest? As much, or as little, as you can give. While only one-third of member families participate in the church’s annual pledge drive, those that do give an average of $2,700 — far more than the cost of dues at Ahavath Achim.”


We collect slightly less than 1/2 of our annual budget from dues.  The rest primarily comes from the sale of Scrip, the Cadillac raffle, income from renting our building, and income from endowments.  We do not want dues to be a barrier to membership.  Please help us rely less on annual dues by making it a point to buy scrip; sell one more Cadillac ticket than last year; and consider leaving a legacy gift to the Ahavas Israel endowment.  A gift of any size will help the ensure the future of our congregation.  Ultimately, a $3 million endowment might reduce dependence on dues by 50% or ensure that the building fund will always have enough money to keep or building beautiful and in good repair.

Filed under: Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi

Welcoming Chaverim, for Developmentally Disabled Adults

Reposted from my friend and colleague Rabbi Paul Kipnes’ Blog:

Torah teaches, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.” The RiPiK, a twentieth century commentator, suggested that beyond refraining from placing blocks, we should actively remove stumbling blocks. To what might this be compared?

A story…

Even as the Director of Chaverim, a local program for developmentally disabled adults asked the question, his discomfort was evident: “How do you feel about opening your congregation to a local group for developmentally disabled adults?”

“Why wouldn’t we?” I asked.

“We’ve been to other synagogues that have opened their doors, only to feel slowly push us out, after their members became uncomfortable with the presence of our members,” he responded.

The conversation continued. “What’s the worst that might happen?” I asked.

“We have one member who can sing loudly, and sometimes off-key.” He paused, “And you might have someone read slowly, completing a communal reading after others have already finished.”

“Sounds like some of our current members.”

“However, they will usually be accompanied by the Chaverim program director or program rabbi, either of whom will help direct our members if necessary. Would you like to come by one of our events to check out the Chaverim members?”

“Why? Give me a heads up when you think there might be an issue. Make sure that in the early months you attend services only when I am leading them. That way I can witness and deal with any issues that might arise.”

So We Welcomed Chaverim
“Yes, we would love to welcome you,” I said. “Let me speak to our Board in two weeks, when I know they will openly embrace the idea and your members. We will extend to any of your members full membership at our synagogue. Two High Holy Day tickets per Chaverim member – one for the member, one for his/her driver or guest. We will make you, as Director of Chaverim, a complimentary synagogue member, so that we can give you access to our synagogue afterhours for use during your scheduled programs and classes. We ask only that your members fill out a synagogue membership form so we can get them into our system.”

“They should pay membership dues,” he said. “So that they have a sense of commitment. How much should they need to pay?”

“We won’t care. Whatever you think is appropriate. No more than $50; no less than $10. We only ask that they pay it in one lump sum, to ease the work on our bookkeeper. To make it easier, you collect the forms and information, and pass them onto my assistant, who will oversee the processing of the forms.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to meet them first?” he inquired.

“Listen, we pride ourselves on being a congregation that is open and welcoming. And we have families with developmentally disabled children and relatives. So no, I don’t need to approve them. They are Jews. Let them come home.”

Not a Mitzvah (good deed), but a Mitzvah (religious obligation)
It saddens me when I hear kvelling about how this synagogue or that is especially accessible to people with disabilities. This is no mitzvah (colloquially, a good deed); it is a mitzvah (literally, a religious obligation). It is the responsibility of every Jewish community to make Jewish life and celebration accessible to every Jew and Jewish family. We strive to remove stumbling blocks from before all Jews – including those with disabilities.

As expected, the Board discussion lasted less than five minutes. The motion to welcome Chaverim was a “no-brainer.” Our CFO and his wife volunteered to be the liaisons with the program; our Program Director was tasked with smoothing the process from the staff side. We created a new membership category called ‘Chaverim,’ though we were aware that it would be a few months before anyone would officially sign up.

The next week, we designated a few Friday nights as Shabbatot when they would officially come worship with us. As I had been informed, only a few Chaverim regulars showed up at the first services to check us out and to make sure we were welcoming. Based on guidance from the Chaverim Director, early in the service when we welcome others, I just said, “We welcome our members who are connected to Chaverim, a program for developmentally disabled adults, ages 18-88.” We did not ask them to identify themselves at that time; we let them just be Jews at services.

A Service Honoring Exceptional People
We are now close to a year into our relationship. I am told that Chaverim members have attended services regularly and appreciate NOT being singled out. They hang out at the oneg like everyone else; last week I enjoyed watching our president chatting up a few Chaverim members, just like she does ever other non-regular who shows up at services. A few read prayers in our annual Service Honoring Exceptional People (our annual “Special Needs” service); others sang along and just felt like they belonged.

All because of one 20-minute phone call, one email from the Rabbi, five minutes in a board meeting, and a few calls by the Program Director. All in the span of a month.

That, and because we took seriously the Torah teaching, “Do not put a stumbling block before the blind.” It should be that easy. Please tell us your story.

Filed under: Accessibility and Inclusion, Embodied Torah Tagged: developmental disability, diversity, inclusion

Sustaining Relationships

A bit of Torah, which I learned from Cantor Lorel Zar-Kessler this past week and shared in my d’var Torah this morning.  It is based on the following passage:

“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not be freed as male slaves are. If she proves to be displeasing to her master, who designated her for himself, he must let her be redeemed; he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders, since he broke faith with her. And if he designated her for his son, he shall deal with her as is the practice with free maidens. If he marries another, he must not withhold from this one her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. If he fails her in these three ways, she shall go free, without payment.”(Exodus 21.7–11 JPS)

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Three things are obligated to to the woman sold into servitude:  Food, clothing, and ona, which might mean ointment, but which has been understood by most commentaries as (sexual) pleasure.

We can read each of these three things as metaphorical instructions for what we need to do within our marital or other relationships to sustain them.  Consider the three questions below.  I’ve suggested answers for each of them, but you might find your own ways to express the concepts of food, clothing, and pleasure in your relationships.

In our relationships, what do we give/receive that is nourishing?  We give:

  • Simple attention.
  • Loyalty. The assurance that the other is a priority in our life.
  • Support and encouraging the other’s growth as a human being with unique talents.

… how do we give protection, how do we need to be protected? We provide the clothing of physical and emotional support:

  • We can be a provider in a financial sense.
  • We give support when our partner fails, we give a hug, an encouraging word.
  • We can also honor accomplishments, affirm a sense of self-worth.

… what makes the relationship pleasurable and fun?

  • How do we laugh together?
  • How do we create moments in which we enjoy each others company?

Filed under: Embodied Torah, Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior, Text Study - The Embodied Torah of Study Tagged: Mishpatim, relationships

Moses and The King’s Speech

The story of Moses is of a second born son who grew up with royal privilege but never expected to be the King. When he is called to be a leader, he tries to get out of it because he has some kind of speech impediment. He asks God to choose someone, anyone, else but him.

There are striking parallels between the story of Moses and the story of Prince Albert, who rose to the throne of the British empire as King George VI.

The second born Prince Albert never expected to be King. He never wanted to be King, because of his speech difficulty. When his brother David, who became King Edward after the death of their father, insisted on continuing a relationship with the twice divorced American Walis Simpson, it became clear that King Edward was going to have to abdicate the throne and Prince Albert was going to have to step up. He ascended to the throne at an extremely difficult time — the beginning of WWII and the beginning of the end of the British empire. He remained in London during the Blitz, ate rationed food along with the rest of his people, visited bomb sites, munition factories, and the troops abroad. He became a symbol of national resistance.

The movie “The King’s Speech,” tells this story of a reluctant Prince, struggling with his royal role and ultimately the responsibility to become King after his brother abdicated the throne – a responsibility that he feels is a Divine mandate – and his dread of public speaking because of his stammer.

Although the movie is based on historical events, it takes some liberties with history and the precise timing of the resignation of Chamberlin and Churchill’s ascent. However, the main point of the movie is not to teach us history, but to explore the relationship between Prince Albert/King George, played by Colin Firth, and his speech therapist Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush.

My colleague Rabbi Philip Pohl wrote:

As I watched the film I more clearly understood the power that must have been evident to the Israelites in the example of Moses, biblically documented as being deficient in speech, persevering through many bouts of self-doubt and lack of success. Watching the actors in the film portraying the disappointed King’s advisors and worried public made me think of the Israelites who had to wonder how it might ever be possible for the speech impaired Moses to face up to the glory and power of Pharaoh.

And then finally when success is achieved, the inspiration provided just by courage and personal persistence is palpable. The film manages to demonstrate how it is possible for a person’s ability to eventually defeat his own individual demons can serve as a model for an entire nation to be victorious over demons who threaten to destroy the world.

Imagine what the Israelites were thinking, sending Moses off to meet with Pharaoh, especially after he comes back and gives them the bad news, that they are now going to have to gather their own straw to make bricks. What did they think of Moses at that moment? What did Moses think of himself – a failed leader? One whose inability to speak well has cost his people dearly?

My colleague Charles Savenor wrote:

We might assume that God wants an eloquent speaker and someone who feels ready and eager to assume a leadership role. But instead, Moses – hesitant, scared and almost the epitome of a broken vessel – is chosen. In addition to his humility and wisdom, God chooses Moses because of his imperfections. The irony of the story is that God accepts Moses as he is. It is Moses who needs to learn to accept himself. Ultimately, Moses was able to be a leader in spite of his limitations.

It is precisely when the task seems so large that we need to remember that Moses’ inadequacies and hesitations did not hold him back from being a leader. In fact, when exposed firsthand to injustice and cruelty, he takes immediate action without stopping to consider the personal ramifications.

…. We are all like Moses in that each of us has our own challenges and shortcomings. Similarly, each of us has a unique contribution to make – to our communities, to society, to the world – if only we learn to accept ourselves as we are.

Dale Carnegie, in his books and in the course that bears his name, teaches that the quality that makes a speaker compelling is not having mastered the mechanics of speaking with a powerfully resonant voice or the words one uses, but rather the passion and enthusiasm and commitment to the message one is trying to deliver. We find the fullest expression of ourselves when we both accept our limitations and work to transcend them.

Filed under: Accessibility and Inclusion, Embodied Torah Tagged: King George VI, Moses, speech impediment, stammer, stutter, The King's Speech

The Reuben

I’ve been trying to write something about the movie “The King’s Speech” (which was the subject of my d’var Torah this past Shabbat), a must-see movie, but haven’t quite gotten it right yet.  In the meantime, see the movie and think about Moses.

For now, take a look at this video on Youtube:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77z2VsqEmXk

What are we talking about here?  A sandwich, yes, but much more.  What is the role of “tradition” in Judaism?  Just because something is an ancient custom, should we take it more seriously than if it were a newly invented ritual?  Does a ritual that has its origins in New York – or Mount Sinai – have more authority than one which comes from a different place or time?  What makes a ritual Jewish?  How much can we remove from a traditional Jewish practice before it no longer is Jewish?

The video raises these delightful questions, and at the very end should make you laugh … and if you enjoy eating Reuben sandwiches, should make you think twice!

Filed under: Embodied Torah Tagged: Kashrut, Reuben, Tradition
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