I am 'The Luckiest' - 11.02.2014

When Emily walked down the aisle at our wedding one week ago, our guests saw me collapse into a ball of emotion, tears rolling down my cheeks. I’m guessing that most assumed it was because of the power of the moment, seeing my bride for the first time in her wedding dress. As a matter of fact, friends of mine had an ‘over/under’ bet as to how long it would take until I lost it. Most put me at about 3 minutes. ‘Under’ was the way to go.

Yes, Emily was amazingly beautiful. Yes, I was full of emotion as I gazed out onto friends and family. But there’s more to the story. If you’ve ever seen the movie Cocktail with Tom Cruise, you may know what I mean when I tell you that she ‘spooked’ me. She got me good. Real good.

To explain, I need to talk about wedding planning, and our choice of first dance.

Emily and I had an idea to put the first dance up to a vote for our guests. Each of us would pick a song that was a surprise to the other, the guests would vote, and the DJ would play that song.

I picked The Luckiest by Ben Folds, and she picked For the Longest Time by Billy Joel. Her and I are a bit competitive, and we both were sure that we had the winning song. We asked a few close friends what they thought (without telling each other the song), and without question, everyone picked Emily’s. Another one lost. Sigh.

Months later, we went to see the movie About Time.

It’s a romantic comedy with a beautiful message, and without giving away anything, the end gets very emotional. As is typically the case during such moments, Emily looked at me, gently teasing me … Are you crying again?

As the last few minutes of the movie played, Ben Fold’s The Luckiest played underneath. And I lost it. Completely. I explained to Emily that this was the song I had picked as our first dance, and it makes me think of her, and it’s beautiful … etc, etc …

Fast forward to more wedding planning:

I am in a klezmer band in Athens, and our violinist is also a marvelous vocalist. She sings an absolutely gorgeous rendition of Erev Shel Shoshanim, a traditional Hebrew love song. It is often sung as the bride walks down the aisle. For months Emily said that she didn’t love that song, and would prefer if the band sang another song.

Finally, she gave in, knowing that I really love the version that my band sings. I was so excited as I visualized Emily coming down the aisle to this beautiful melody.

Just three days before the wedding, I practiced with the band, as I would be rapping to Emily (Rabbi’s Delight, a take on Rapper’s Delight) in between a marvelously energetic 40-minute hora. At that practice, I mentioned how excited I was to hear Erev Shel Shoshanim on my wedding day.

Unbeknownst to me, Emily had surreptitiously gotten the band to switch out Erev Shel Shoshanim with The Luckiest.

I realized something was amiss when I noticed that the words sung were not in Hebrew. It took me a few seconds, but all eventually came clear. And then, enter afore-mentioned collapsing.

Here are the words to this beautiful song. I will forever think of them and my even-more beautiful bride. I am indeed The Luckiest.


I don't get many things right the first time

In fact, I am told that a lot

Now I know all the wrong turns

The stumbles and falls brought me here

And where was I before the day

That I first saw your lovely face?

Now I see it everyday

And I know that I am

I am, I am the luckiest

What if I'd been born fifty years before you

In a house on the street where you live?

Maybe I'd be outside as you passed on your bike

Would I know?

And in a wide sea of eyes

I see one pair that I recognize

And I know that I am

I am, I am the luckiest

I love you more than I have

Ever found a way to say to you

Next door, there's an old man who lived to his 90's

And one day, passed away in his sleep

And his wife, she stayed for a couple of days

And passed away

I'm sorry, I know that's a strange way

To tell you that I know we belong

That I know that I am

I am, I am the luckiest

Don't Go Hungry: Pinchas 07-11-2014

A poor woman had two children, and all of them were starving. One morning, the woman came upon a perfectly round egg. The children squealed with delight, excited that they would finally eat.

The mother said, "Now children ... we musn't be hasty! If we wait, the egg will hatch and it will be a chicken. And we won't cook the chicken, because if we wait, the chicken will have more eggs, and then we'll have a bunch of chickens. And we can go to the market and sell the chickens for a cow. And then, we'll wait some more, and we'll trade the cow's milk for chickens and goats and hens ... and we'll have a whole farm and enough food to feed all of us so that we'll never go hungry again!

And in her excitement, wouldn't ya know it, the woman drops the egg ....

So it is with us - all of us have good intentions. Most of the time, we WANT to do the right thing. We want to work out, we want to eat healthier, we want to be nicer to that one person that gets on our nerves ... But as we all know, there is a gap between the loftiness of our intentions and our ability to bring those intentions to fruition.

This week's Torah portion teaches the same lesson.

The parsha of Pinchas starts with God saying to Pinchas, Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion.

Earlier, we read that Pinchas snuck into the tent of a fellow Israelite, and his new Mideonite bride. Mideonites were not well respected ... Pinchas, upset that his clansman married a non-Jew, decides to take matters into his own hands. He kills the Israelite man and his wife.

Now, this is highly problematic. Pinchas kills two people, and for THIS God reflects that Pinchas turned back God's wrath from the Israelites?

The story also troubles me for its implicit harsh judgement of intermarried couples, many who make up the backbone of congregations across the country, including our own.

So why praise Pinchas to the point of having an entire Torah portion named after him?

I think it's because unlike the old lady in our story, Pinchas did not deliberate. He acted. and as God later tells him, he acted zealously.

There are many elements of Pinchas' action that are objectionable to one degree, or downright horrid to another. But, he teaches us a few very important lessons regarding Judaism.

1) It is a religion of action. We have 613 mitzvot, 613 laws. A VERY small majority of these commandments relate to how we should feel, or what we believe. The vast majority revolves around visible actions that we do with our body. As a matter of fact, I once learned that the reason that some Jews "shuckle" while davening, is to remind themselves that after prayer is over, they need to actualize the words of prayer. We do that with our bodies - through action.

2) You are enough. In Judaism, there are no theological intermediaries, such as in Catholicism. You can be your own teacher, your own rabbi. Now, that should be balanced with a healthy dose of intellectual rigor and community discourse, but as a Jew, YOU decide how to live Jewishly.

3) Judaism is intensely emotional and personal. Larry Hoffman, one of my favorite professors, said to us time and again, "Theology is autobiography." Judaism is filled with intellectual activity. We have the Torah, the Mishna, the Talmud, the commentaries, the Midrash .... There is always more to learn, another class to take, a book to read. But more to the point, it's not a religion to be learned, but to be lived. Pinchas' zealousness shows that Judaism is not just about the rote recitation of prayer, or the habitual practice of commandments. It is about meaning, spirituality, passion ... zealousness.

I do want our beliefs to be filled with joy, spirituality and warmth. But more importantly, I want our lives to be filled by the actions we take. Then, we will never be hungry again.

Thoughts on Israel & Palestine: 07-04-2014

This has been a difficult week.

Last Shabbat, we prayed for the safety of three Israeli teens. On June 12, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach disappeared after leaving their yeshiva. World jewry came together in solidarity as we prayed for their safe return. Their bodies were discovered on Monday.

Two days later, tragedy struck again. 16-year-old Mohammad Abu Khieder was kidnapped near his home in East Jerusalem. A few hours after this kidnapping, police found his burnt body.

While planning for their sons funerals, the three Israeli families requested that there be no talk of retribution or revenge. However, during the funeral service for these three lost sons, hundreds of Jewish nationalists marched in Jerusalem, shouting "death to the Arabs." As one of my colleagues remarked, This is not my Israel.

Naftali Fraenkel, the uncle of one of the slain Israeli boys, renounced this sort of retribution and revenge: There is no difference between Arab blood and Jewish blood.

The three Israeli students belonged to a yeshiva headed by the renowned teacher Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. Steinsaltz said, Our boys were killed because they were Jews. Therefore, to best honor their memories - indeed, to confront evil, we must act always as proud Jews, in our deeds and through our lives.

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This week's Torah portion contains a poignant parallel to these recent, painful events.

The prophet Balaam is hired by Balak to curse the Jews. Balaam is the most renowned prophet in the land, and Balak knows that the curse that tumbles forth from Balaam's mouth will transform into a harsh reality for the Israelites.

I'm going to summarize an amazingly fantastic story, but when the time comes to curse the Israelites, there is a startling occurrence. There he is, looking down upon the Israelite nation, his enemy ... and instead of cursing the Israelites, his words are something else entirely: Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya'akov - How good are your tents O, Jacob, and your dwellings, O Israel.

Every morning when Jews gather together in friendship and prayer, we sing these words that first came out of the mouth of a sworn enemy of the Israelites. The beautiful blessing that we recite was meant to be a curse.

...

Deuteronomy tells us: tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice, justice you shall pursue. The word for justice, tzedek is repeated twice. Our rabbis teach that the word's repetition is there to remind us that when we pursue justice, it must be done with justice. with mercy. with love.

In Judaism, the ends do not justify the means. Revenge and retribution may satisfy our baser instincts, but they are not the right thing to do, and certainly not the Jewish thing to do.

It is my prayer that both Arabs and Jews recognize the painful futility of escalating violence and hatred. It is my prayer that we mourn the lives of these four boys by heeding Rabbi Steinsaltz advice and live proud, authentic Jewish lives.

When experiencing these feelings of rage and anger, hurt and hopelessness, it is easy to join the cacophony of voices that contribute to the edifice of curses ... of hatred and revenge. or retribution. Or, we can pursue justice with justice. If we all did this, we too would turn our curses into blessings. May this be God's will

This is Not a "Feel-Good" Story: Korach 06-20-2014

Tonight, I'm going to talk about Korach. Korach was a first cousin to Moses and Aaron. He challenged their authority, claiming that the priesthood should belong to him. The story ends with the earth swallowing up Korach and his 14,000 followers. Korach does not display violence. He doesn't threaten his Israelite community.

Is it a small thing that you brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, that you lord it over us as well? Besides, you haven't brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey or given us possession of field of vineyard.

Korach is a political dissenter. He doesn't like how his cousins Moses and Aaron are leading the people, and he thinks that he can do better. Incidentally, many elements of his speech are used in modern political discourse. Korach accurately reflects that Moses has not yet brought the people to a land flowing with milk and honey. He mixes a truth into his argument in his attempt to persuade the Israelites.

...

This tale of Korach is a disturbing portion in our Torah. It is another story in which a punishment seems to vastly outmeasure the crime. Moses forces Korach to compete in an elaborate test that will show who indeed has God's favor. The test ends with the earth opening up to engulf Korach and his followers. Making things even more problematic, it was not just Korach's followers that died; the households and families of Korach's supporters befell the same tragedy.

We've talked in the past about the Jewish concept of Tzidduk HaDin, the judgement of God. A better understanding would be 'the rationalizations of God's judgments.' Rabbis create midrashim and backstories in order to justify a divine action that would otherwise seem cruel, harsh, unfair, unethical, or irrational. These are examples of Tzidduk HaDin. And there are many such examples that relate to Korach.

But tonight let's look only at the passage from the Torah, and not from rabbis' later commentary. At the worst, Korach is arrogant and full of hubris, but I don't think that he deserves to die. Kol v'chomer, all the more so, 14,000 of his followers and their families certainly did not deserve to die.

So, what do we do?

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I'm not going to even attempt to fit this story into our notions of what is right and what is wrong. It's a problematic text. Last week, God punishes an entire generation of Israelites, telling them that only the next generation can enter Israel. He does this because after sending twelve leaders to scout the land, ten of them come back filled with fear and anxiety. Time and again large groups of people are punished for the actions of a few.

But this is the message - well, actually the meta-message - that I want to leave you with tonight. The problematic nature of these stories are intentional. They aren't there to necessarily make us fear God. These stories aren't there to make us think that God is cruel. And although others would argue with me, they also aren't part of the Torah as a catalyst for our observance of Mitzvot. They are there to make us talk about them. They are there to make us question. To inspire us to converse, discuss, argue, comment ... to learn.

Our Torah is filled with these problematic tales not because we have a jealous, angry, capricious God, but because God wants us to think about them. God wants us to think about our morals. These stories help to create our Jewish identities precisely because they are problematic and difficult.

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The Torah is not a "feel-good" book. There are certainly stories of comfort and inspiration, moments of tenderness and love, relationships that display compassion and selflessness.

Taken as a whole, however, I think that the Torah is problematic. I apologize in advance for this pun, but the Torah being problematic is not a problem. In fact, it is exactly what makes it so precious. The problematic nature of our stories, whether they be Korach, the story of the 12 spies, Abraham sacrificing Isaac or God flooding the Earth, causes us to look inward for our own interpretations. They also cause us to look outward so that we can learn from others' perspectives. Put another way, our written Torah leads us to both find and create a different Torah.

We Cannot be Jews Without Israel: Yom HaZikaron 05-02-2014

During every single evening service, Jews recite the Hashkivenu prayer. Within the service, we recite it between the Mi Chamocha and the Amidah. It is a petitionary prayer in which we ask God to be able to rest peacefully through the night and wake up to life the next morning, renewed. On Shabbat, the last line of the prayer is lengthened. Tonight we ended the prayer with the words, Who spreads the shelter of peace upon us, upon all of his people Israel, and upon Jerusalem. On Shabbat, quite possibly the holiest holiday in Judaism, we specifically pay special attention to the protection of Jerusalem and to Israel.

This Sunday evening is Yom Hazikaron, and Monday evening marks the beginning of Yom Ha'atzmaut. The first is the Israeli Day of Remembrance, and the second is the Israeli Independence Day.

Yom Hazikaron is not like our American Memorial Day. It is not a day for vacation travel or for enjoyable socializing. Almost every high school in Israel has a "memorial room" where they can pay tribute to alumni that lost their lives fighting for their country. Schools have special assemblies, everyone dressed in white shirts and blue pants.

A siren blasts throughout the country at 11:00am, marking the beginning of a two-minute standstill. All activity comes to an end. Drivers slowly stop their vehicles and stand on the side of the road to observe this two-minute silence. Radio and television stations broadcast stories of Israeli soldiers and heroes.

In Israel, almost every Israeli knows someone that has been killed while serving their country. This day of Yom Hazikaron is not only nationalistic and patriotic; it is intensely personal.

And as the afternoon hours turn into the evening, a shift happens. The mood changes from somber to celebratory, as the nation turns away from the painful memories and toward the celebration of statehood. During Yom Ha'atzmaut, the entire country celebrates its pride in being Am Yisrael.

...

These days are a time for us to reflect upon our relationship with Israel.

It's true that Jewish attitudes toward Israel are different than they were in 1948. Just within our Jewish communities in America, there is divisiveness and anger regarding different opinions on Israel. There are lots of Jews today that do not sense a connection between their strong Jewish identities on the one hand and Israel on the other. In recent years, liberal and conservative jews have had problems with the Israeli orthodox establishment. The issues surrounding the Women of the Wall have highlighted gender inequalities that prohibit women from expressing their Jewish selves.

A relationship with Israel is not simple. It can be complex, problematic and frustrating. But as with any other meaningful relationship, these difficulties should not and can not cause us to separate.

The holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote this about God, but it pertains perfectly to Israel:

For a Jew to believe in God is good. For a Jew to protest against God is still good. But simply to ignore God - that is not good. Anger, yes. Protest, yes. Affirmation, yes. But indifference? No. You can be a Jew with God or you can be against God. But you can not be a Jew without God.

We can not be Jews without Israel.

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My relationship to Israel makes me a stronger Jew. For those of us who have been blessed enough to be able to travel there, one feels a deep sense of spirituality and connection... We hike Masada, pray at the Western Wall, watch the awesome array of stars in the Negev desert amidst the Bedouins ... these are more than tourist activities. They are a part of our history and our homeland.

The name of our homeland, Israel, is of course taken from the name that God confers upon Jacob - Yisrael. It means one who struggles with God. As we know all too well, Israel is a place of struggle. Jacob was given this birthright because he struggled with God until daybreak. I remind myself of this story when I think of the tensions and struggles regarding the land of Israel.

Like Jacob, we too receive blessing by facing these issues. Visit Israel. Talk to Israelis. Read the news. Open yourself up to the messy, difficult, beautiful and holy country that is our homeland of Israel.

Our liturgy tonight has various references to Jerusalem and Israel. Israel is never far from our hearts. We may not physically live in its land, but it is a part of us nonetheless. We are Am Yisrael. Am Yisrael Chai - the people of Israel shall live.

Still Enslaved, Even During Passover: Reflections on Hate, Chol HaMoed Pesach 04-11-2014

Soon after the Exodus from Egypt, God teaches us: You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

This is such a powerful theme of Passover because it asks us to remember our history and then intentionally use that history as our inspiration for moving forward. We were strangers in the land of Egypt, and therefore have an all-too-clear understanding of what it is like to be persecuted and hated. And precisely because of that historical experience, You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him.

On Passover, we are meant to be joyous about not only our freedom, but about our responsibility to help insure freedom for others.

This Shabbat should be joyous. We are in the middle of Chol HaMoed Pesach, the intermediate days of Passover. Tonight is the 4th day of the Omer, the period of 49 days linking the joyous freedom of Passover with the holiness of Shavuot.

And yet, it sometimes feels as if we are still in Egypt, entrapped into stereotypes, closed-mindedness and hatred.

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Last Sunday, as Jews around the world were preparing to celebrate Passover on Monday evening, a man walked into the Jewish Community Center in Kansas and city and shot and killed three people. He wanted to kill Jews. He had posted thousands of hate messages on different web sites and blogs. He thought Jews ran the country. He talked about the fact that Jews destroyed health care in America.

Slate magazine goes into detail about his history of hate. I was shocked to learn that since 9/11, extremists motivated by Al Qaeda's ideology have killed 23 American citizens. But that number is dwarfed by those Americans killed by extremists that were already known to be affiliated with ideologies and groups such as white supremacists, anti-abortion extremists and anti-government militants. These individuals have killed 34 Americans.

A few days after this incident, there were reports coming out of the Ukraine that seemed to be other-wordly. Leaflets were handed out in the city of Donetsk starting with the words, Dear Ukraine citizens of Jewish nationality. The language ordered Jews to register themselves as Jews, or else have their assets seized, face deportation or have their citizenship revoked.

After a few days of muddled information, news broke today that these leaflets did not come from the government. They were the manifestations of an elaborate prank coordinated by a local hate group. Nonetheless, these leaflets certainly illicit a particularly strong response from Jews.

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I can not offer any logical answers to these harsh, painful realities. There is no sermon, no text, no Torah passage that can make sense of hate crimes. But, Judaism does teach us how to respond.

Judaism teaches us, implores us even - that we can not respond to hate with hate. As the Torah says, we can not hate a neighbor in our heart, even if the reverse is not true. Deuteronomy screams at us, Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof - justice, justice shall you pursue! Our rabbis teach us that the word for justice is repeated twice to remind us that even as we seek out justice, we must do so with justice.

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The Exodus from Egypt is but one story of freedom and emancipation. The Israelites' emancipation was but one moment in history. In times like these I think that Passover should not talk about The Exodus, but rather An Exodus ... For there are many more miracles that need to be performed ... Across our world there are many people that still need to be freed. Whether it is from the oppressive rule of a cruel dictatorship or the kind of slavery that chains people to preconceived ideas and stereotypes, we must remember that we were slaves in Egypt, precisely so that we will never again be slaves in Egypt.

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In America, we live mostly blessed lives as Jews. We are able to join together with our non-Jewish brothers and sisters to condemn hatred and violence, oppression and closed-mindedness. Because we know what it is like to be strangers in the land of Egypt, we need to act so that hate crimes do not happen. against. anyone. Blacks, LGBTQ individuals, gypsies, Latinos, people with disabilities, women, liberals, conservatives ... many people have been attacked and vilified because of the color of the skin, their sexual orientation, their nationality or their religious heritage. We Jews do not own a claim on persecution. But we can own a claim in helping to end persecution. We can be a light onto the nations.

This is indeed a bittersweet Shabbat. We are reminded far too often that we live in an unjust world. But let us also remember that it is our job to change the world. You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt

Who Moved my Matzah?! Shabbat HaGadol 04-11-2014

(tell story about everyone bowing in synagogue … )

We do things that we're used to. We have a “usual” drink at the coffee shop, we sit in the same seat at meetings and conferences ... we tend to go to bed around the same time every night. Our lives are filled with regular patterns of behavior - some conscious, some subconscious.

And Judaism is no different. During Shabbat, we want to sing the songs that we grew up with - the melodies that our grandparents sang with us. We say the exact same prayers at almost every single service. The repetitive nature of Jewish ritual and prayer solidifies our minhagim, our customs. It's not a surprise then, that deviation from our habits can cause strife. Intellectually, we know that change is hard, but necessary. But emotionally and spiritually, it's difficult to let go. In times like these we may exclaim, Who moved my Matzah?!

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Passover is a complex holiday filled with friendship and joy, spirituality and lots of kosher for Passover foods. Passover teaches many things. It teaches about freedom, and our responsibility to be a light onto the nations as we help insure freedom for others. It teaches about the importance of history - the entire holiday is a historical remembrance to Moses and the Israelites that fled Egypt. Pesach is also a tribute to God, praising and thanking God for freeing us with an outstretched arm and a mighty hand. The holiday focuses on the exodus from Egypt, Mitzrayiim. In Hebrew, the word Mitzrayiim is a combination of three words – Mi, Tzar, and Im. Mi means from, and im signifies something plural. The word tzar means narrow place. Mitzrayiim means “from the narrow places.” On Passover, we do not only celebrate the exodus of the Israelites from the land of Egypt. We also allow emancipate ourselves from the shackles of our own narrow places. Above all its messages and inspirations, Passover both allows us and teaches to break from some of our habits - our Mitzrayim ... This is clear if we think for a moment on the central question that we ask at the seder table: Why is this night different than all other nights?

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The Exodus is not a one time event. Each of us is imprisoned.. Perhaps we are trapped by our own expectations, and do not allow ourselves to see beyond them. Perhaps we are trapped into continuing a pattern of strained relationships and resentments.

Habits are good. Judaism with its 613 Mitzvot teaches us that habits are necessary. But whatever the habit is, if we continue to do it, it needs to be for reasons that are relevant and meaningful now, and not because that's the way it's always been done.

And that brings me to this week’s Torah portion. Within this parsha located in the middle of Leviticus, we read what has come to be known as the holiness code. It is a section of Leviticus in which God commands mitzvah after mitzvah. Some are moral, some are ritualistic, and some are theologically problematic. Toward the beginning of this holiness code, our Torah says the following:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: speak to the Israelite people and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you
dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.
My rules alone shall you observe.”

Even after the Exodus, after the joy of freedom, God still commands us.

Judaism is not about complete and utter freedom. Being Jewish, Reform Judaism included, does not mean that we can think and do whatever we want. Our holiday of freedom, Passover reflects this. Passover moves us along a journey toward something other then freedom. 49 days after Passover we will celebrate Shavuot, the giving of the Torah. Passover leads us toward Shavuot, in which we celebrate the responsibility of performing God’s laws. Freedom is only the beginning of our journey.

There’s something else here though. In the above verses, God commands, but there is more to it than “Do my laws or else.” God cautions us from being like the congregants in the fabled synagogue of our joke, bowing without insight or knowledge. God's words urge us not to be trapped in the Mitzrayiim of habit, of rote ritual, and of sheer obedience to the power of "what we're used to."

There's an interesting bit of wordplay with regard to the Hebrew word, minag, meaning custom. It's letters are mem, nun, gimmel. If we reverse the letters, using gimmel, nun, mem, we have the word gehenom, which is akin to the Christian conception of hell. This wordplay reminds us again that whereas traditions and customs are extremely important, sometimes we must allow room for change ...for a new tradition. Otherwise, we are trapped.

During the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot we count the omer. This period is a bridge of time spanning the two holidays. The laws in our Torah are also a bridge between the reliance on the past and the beginning of new insights and rituals for our future. As we celebrate Passover in just a few days and begin counting toward Shavuot, let us make that bridge as wide as possible. Let it lead us toward new insights, new traditions, and new minhagim for our faith and community. And let it lead us to the holiness of Mount Sinai and to our Torah.

The Plague of Gossip: Metzora 04-04-2014

You may remember that earlier in Exodus, God commands the building of the tabernacle. The measurements are precise and exacting - a certain number of cubits for this ... a specific color for that ... God doesn't just tell the Israelites to build something: God gives specific measurements. An architect would have been happy to get these divine blueprints.

One of my favorite mitzvot is from these instructions. God commands that the inside of the holy of holies be covered in the finest of gold. At first blush, this may seem relatively un-interesting. It's the holy of holies - of course it should be lined with gold! But upon reflection, I don't think it's all that obvious.

Think about your home for a moment. I'm guessing that your most treasured possessions are on display in your living room or den. They're public. They're not hidden away in a drawer for no one to see. In fact, friends probably comment on these items as they come into your home for the first time.

But this is not true with the holy of holies. Not everyone gets to see it. In fact, only one person gets to see it - that one person being the high priest. And not only that, he only gets to see it on one day a year - Yom Kippur!

And yet, despite the fact that this rich display of gold is barely seen, it is to be drenched in the richness of gold.

One commentator reflects that God did not command this willy-nilly. The interpretation echoes my kindergarten teacher: It's what is on the inside that counts. And as Exupery wrote in the Little Prince, One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye. The building of the Tabernacle teaches us that outside behaviors must mirror inner beauty. What we say and what we do are commingled. Private theological thought is not completely separate from public speech and action.

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This week we study the Levitical portion of Metzorah. This is the 2nd portion in a row that tells of skin lesions, bodily discharges and diseases ... that's what this portion seems to be about. But beneath its challenges we can find real possibilities for learning and growth.

Part of this Torah portion discusses a sickness of a house. Scaly outbreaks can appear on walls or on the floor. Cracks in the foundation can rock the home back and forth. There is a parallel drawn between the sickness of a person and the home in which that person lives. As with a person, there is a quarantine process - no one can live in the house while it is "unclean." There are rituals that are outlined in which the priest can declare the house clean, just as the priest does with individuals struck with the sickness of tzara'at, which was the focus of last week's portion.

You may remember that our rabbis make a beautiful link between the gossip of our tongues and different physical manifestations of sickness. Lashon Hara, the evil tongue, is the cause of these ailments. Our rabbis warn us to be careful of gossip, and there are many many laws surrounding this important topic.

But just when we wrap our heads around our rabbis' connection of physical disease with gossip, we see something else. Can it be that ... houses get sick?

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In the tabernacle, we have something beautiful and pure that no one sees. A home is like the holy of holies in that it is special ... private. No one knows what happens "behind closed doors." Here too, the Torah challenges us to consider a link between our private selves and our public selves. There is a connection between what happens inside the home and the appearance of that home to others. Sure, none of us are going to come home to find our houses covered in plague-infested goo. But surely we can understand a broken home, an unhealthy home ... an unhappy home.

Ultimately, I think that this section of Metzorah reminds us that outward manifestations do not matter unless they are matched with purity of intention.

The hebrew word for purity is T'horah. The word is used often in this portion, and it's not always clear whether it refers to physical cleanliness or spiritual cleanliness. This is because they are intertwined.

These stories from the Torah remind us that despite our vain efforts to put up "good appearances," it does not diminish sickness from entering our homes - and this is might be a spiritual sickness that indeed does come from Lashon Hara - from hurtful speech.

Our souls are like the holy of holy. They are each capable of being lined with the finest gold. And just like the holy of holies, no one can see it. Unless of course, our language and our actions reflect it toward them, and toward each other.

Does Everything Happen for a Reason: Shmini 03-21-2014

Everything happens for a reason.

Many of us have probably said this, and if not, we’ve certainly heard it. Someone loses a job, ends a relationship, or the Bulldawgs lose a game. And to make sense of these sorts of things, we have this ubiquitous response, Well … everything happens for a reason.

We want things to be meaningful – to make sense. And sometimes we justify what happens to us (and to those around us) by alluding to some larger reality, or truth, or meaning, or comfort. We say Everything happens for a reason to assuage our anger or fear, or guilt, or sadness. It points to a higher “meaning” that reminds us that although this experience may be sad, there’s a treasure that’s waiting to be discovered behind it. And so, we are comforted that perhaps the world isn’t a harsh place of suffering and randomness, but rather purpose and meaning.

Judaism is filled with this sentiment. There is a Jewish concept of Tziduk HaDin”that I want to talk about tonight. You probably know both words; Tziduk comes from the same root as Tzedakah. And Din is the same word we use when we talk about a Beit Din; a Jewish court. Tziduk HaDin, then, is the justification of God’s judgment, or the righteousness of God’s judgment.

Here’s an example: God floods the Earth and kills every single human being on the planet, except for Noah and his immediate family. Rather than denounce God for enacting a cruel, destructive act, we maintain that humanity was selfish and mean, not respecting God or each other. And in so doing, we do Tziduk HaDin – we justify God’s actions.

This week’s Torah portion has what might be the most egregious, painful example of Tziduk HaDin.

Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, approach the altar, and they make a sacrifice to God. Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them.

They had not been asked to make a sacrifice. They had not been commanded. This is akin to you surprising your spouse or a friend by taking them out to a favorite restaurant. The “strange fire” the Torah speaks of alludes to an incorrect practice; they did not perform the sacrifice correctly. They made a mistake.

So what happens?

Fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them. They died at the instance of the Eternal.

God killed them.

If we were to read commentaries and midrashim, we would read that Nadav and Abihu were surreptitiously staging a coup d’état, attempting to steal power and prestige from their uncle Moses and their father, Aaron. We would learn that they were selfish, desiring God’s blessing for themselves. They were not leading the people with the spiritual wholesomeness of their father and uncle. And so, because of the reasons listed above, they got what they deserved.

But here’s the thing; the Torah does not say that. There is nary a hint of the kind of malignancies that our rabbis are trying to inculcate into our understanding. The two sons simply approached the altar, without being asked, and performed a sacrifice, and may have gotten it not quite 100% correct.

Aaron's sons deviated from the law. Think about this for a moment ... don't each of us deviate from Jewish law when we drive to synagogue on Friday night? Tonight, we are also playing instruments. From the pshat, the plain meaning of the Torah portoin, Aaron's sons are not troublemakers. They are two Jews trying to experience holiness in the best way that they know to do. We are Nadav and Abihu. We also try our best ... And sometimes what we do may in face also be "strange fire."

The story of Aaron's sons challenges us that perhaps we should refrain from our inclinations to find order and meaning in our lives. Sometimes, things don't make sense. Perhaps sometimes, God does something mean ... or wrong ... or immoral. Tziduk HaDin is an easy way out. Instead, let's embrace the ambiguity of our tradition. Let us accept the inconsistencies, the stories that may not make sense ... these are a part of our Jewish identities. It is up to us to create the meanings from them. In that sense, maybe everything does happen for a reason after all.

Remembering to Forget: Shabbat Zachor 03-14-2014

Judaism has lots of interesting, unique, perhaps even esoteric rituals. But the most interesting that I've learned revolves involves a sofer, a Torah scribe. The ritual involves Amalek, an awful enemy of the Jewish people. Soon after the Exodus from Egypt, Amalek attacked the Israelites from behind, killing the elderly along with defenseless women and children. There is an incredibly amount of midrashic material on Amalek, especially considering the few brief passages that mention him by name.

But let us get back to the ritual I was speaking about: When a sofer begins to write a Torah, he takes a scrap of kosher k'laf, parchment, and writes the Hebrew word, Amalek. Immediately after inscribing the word, the sofer scribbles back and forth on the word until the word is illegible. Only then does he proceed to begin to write the Torah.

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Tonight is Shabbat Zachor - the Shabbat of memory. It occurs on the Sabbath before Purim. On this night, we read from Parashat Tzav, our current portion in Leviticus. But because this is the Shabbat before Purim, we also add an extra portion from Deuteronomy. The additional verses have to do with the aforementioned Amalek, and his heinous cruelty toward the Israelites.

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt - how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when God grants you safety from all your enemies in the land that God is giving you, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

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Let's fast forward to Purim. The villain of the Purim story, Haman ... let's try that again ... Haman (pause for boos) is descended from Amalek. Our Megillah of Esther tells us that he is an Amalekite. And so, we also read these verses from Deuteronomy concerning Amalek.

You may know that the verb zachor - remember appears more than any other verb in our entire Torah. Our Torah scribe enacts this interesting ritual of writing Amalek's name and then crossing it for a few reasons. First, he is following the mitzvah of blotting out the memory of Amalek, much as we will do tomorrow when we talk about Ha ... I almost got you there.

But more importantly, the sofer does this so that he remembers that the Torah is a model for how to do good, and not evil.

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These Deuteronomy verses are very interesting. They ask us to remember what Amalek did to us, but they also urge us to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. We could argue that by writing Amalek's name, we are not blotting out his memory.

As we ponder these verses one day before celebrating the holiday of Purim, we think on this interesting interplay between the importance to remember the awful deeds of our enemies on the one hand and the desire to blot out their memories on the other. Just as the sofer intentionally writes Amalek's name just to cross it out, we too say Haman's name intentionally so that we can then drown it out with our shouts and our groggers.

We Jews have long memories. We reflect on creation, we remember our ancestors. We think back to the Exodus. But whereas we reflect on the past, we are not meant to dwell in the past. We remember Haman's cruelty, but we focus our rituals on celebrating our victory over him. We remember Amalek, but yet we focus on celebration, not tragedy, when we sing Mi Chamocha.

Shabbat Zachor reminds us that memory is important, but not more important than our present or future selves. As we go into our joyous holiday of Purim, that is something worth remembering.

Drawing Close to God: Vayikra 03-07-2014

This week starts the beginning of the middle book of our Torah, Leviticus. The editors of the Torah were the Levites, the priestly caste that enforced all of the laws and rituals that pertained to the Israelites. It is not surprising that they placed the book about themselves smack dab in the middle of the Torah, where it would be the most prominent.

It may be prominent, but it does not come across as that exciting. Unlike Genesis and most of Exodus, Leviticus is not filled with narrative stories. There is no bravery of Abraham, courage of Moses, or journey of Jacob. Instead, it mostly consists of a litany of laws relating to one specific ritual that we don't even do anymore - sacrifice. A professor I had at Hebrew Union College once said that if the Reform movement had intellectual fortitude, it would excise Leviticus from the religious canon.

This first portion serves as an introduction to the sacrificial system. There are different sacrifices for different actions. There is a thanksgiving sacrifice, there is a penitential sacrifice, there is the Georgia Bulldawg sacrifice ....

Just as there were different sacrifices for different occasions, we now have various prayers that serve specific functions. There are prayers of gratitude, forgiveness, love, wonder, grief ... Prayers were meant to replace sacrifice. Since the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70AD, there was no longer a central place to participate in the sacrifice of animals. Instead of drama relating to the slaughtering of an animal, we now have a certain drama to our service, with various prayers rising and falling in crescendo and diminuendo.
The rabbis were so precise about this switch, in fact, that the Amidah prayer is meant to literally replicate the moment at which the high priest would slaughter an animal.

The verb meaning to sacrifice is l'hakriv. It can also mean, to draw close or to come near. When we pray, this is what we hope to do - to draw close to ourselves, our community, our God.

And the Lord called to Moses Vayikra el Moshe. This is how this third book of Torah starts. In Biblical times, Israelites heard God's call through the performance of sacrifice. Now, we hear it through prayer.

Last week I talked about the differences between the Shabbat concept of "rest," and the idiomatic meaning of "rest."

Sacrifice deserves a similar treatment. The sacrifice that we offer today of prayer is not a sacrifice as we mean in the colloquial sense. Typically, a sacrifice is something that you are willing to let go of, or give up. But prayer is an addition that we make to and for ourselves. Full prayer requires a full presence, of being able to say I am here - Hineni, so that each of us can l'hakriv, draw closer.

If we continue to study Torah, if we continue to pray and sing, perhaps we too will hear God call out to us. And our prayer will bring us closer to ourselves and to our God.

Is Shabbat Really a Day of Rest? Vayak'heil 02-21-14

These are the things that the Eternal has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal, whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day. (Exodus 35:1-3)

Shabbat is extremely important to the Jewish people. One of the founders of cultural Zionism, Ahad Ha'am, is often quoted as saying: More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.

We know that Shabbat is important; the 4th commandment is entirely devoted to its observance. We also know that it is a day of rest; there can be no work on Shabbat. But this requires a bit of semantic unpacking, as our colloquial definition of "work" and "rest" do not necessarily translate exactly to the underpinnings of Shabbat.

In this section of portions in the Torah, God commands the building of the tabernacle. It turns out that there are 39 actions that God instructs. The Israelites paint, sculpt. They light fires, they hammer and nail ... If we made a spreadsheet consisting of each instruction to the Israelites, we would see 39 verbs repeated over and over. Taken together, these 39 actions are exactly what is considered avodah - work.

This explains why you can walk 5 miles in the hot sun to synagogue on Shabbat, but you can't drive, because driving is akin to "lighting a fire." Similarly, one can't watch TV, but you can read a book. I'll put it this way: On Shabbat, Jewish law prohibits us from performing the exact 39 actions that were done when constructing the tabernacle and the mishkan.

Somewhat ironically, it actually takes quite a lot of work to celebrate Shabbat. It isn't a day of laziness. It is meant to be a day of intention and of serious engagement and learning. It is also meant to be different than the other days of the week. During the week, we build. On Shabbat, we reflect and consider. During the rest of the week, we petition God for those things lacking in our lives. On Shabbat, we only show gratitude and joy.

Why do we celebrate Shabbat?

One answer comes easily. We rest on the seventh day because God rested on the seventh day. After God's 'work-week' of the 6 days of creation, God stopped creating in order to reflect upon creation. Shabbat becomes an example of imitateo dei - the imitation of God. This point is emphasized again when the Israelites receive the Ten Commandments: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy ... For in six days God made the heaven and earth...

But as you may know, the 10 commandments are repeated again in the book of Deuteronomy. But here, the reason for our Shabbat does not have anything to do with creation: Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

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For this one holiday, Shabbat, the Torah gives us two very important reasons for its observance.

We celebrate Shabbat because of our connection to God. Because we are created in the image of God, we are meant to emulate God's holiness: God creates ... we create. God is holy ... we are holy. God rests on the seventh day ... we rest on the seventh day.

But we also celebrate Shabbat because of history. The commandment in Deuteronomy teaches us that Shabbat connects us to events in our past. Shabbat helps to reconnect us with God, but also with each other, as we remember the miracles that God has performed for our ancestors, in our history ... and in our own lives.

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We keep Shabbat so that we can rest and have a day that's different than the other days of the week. But we also keep Shabbat so that we stay connected to our tradition, our God and ourselves.

Jews Like to Touch Things: Ki Tissah 02-14-2014

Jews like to touch things.

When we parade the Torah around the congregation in the hakafah, we place our prayerbook onto the Torah cover and then kiss it. Some of us will tap a finger onto a mezuzah before entering a Jewish home. Upon visiting the holy site of the Western Wall, we write down prayers and insert them compactly into the crevices scattered along the surface.

Our God can't be seen, touched, smelled or heard ... at least not in ways that we normally see, touch, smell and hear things. One of our 10 commandments even bars us from creating images of God. Theological encounter is intellectual, not sensual.

And yet, perhaps even to make up for this, Judaism has its share of sensory triggers. Even looking around our sanctuary, we notice the eternal light, the ark, the Torah ... These things are not just sanctuary-dressing. They are not only for decoration. They matter.

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In this week's Torah portion, Ki Tissah, God continues to instruct Moses about the details of the holy tabernacle; the Mishkan.

God talks about the tells Moses about the "biggies" - the ark and the Torah and the Ten of Meeting. But God also gives very specific instructions about certain fragrances - stacte and onycha and galbanum. This portion can seem more like architectural blueprints than theological insights.

Toward the middle of the passage, God says:

You shall anoint the Tent of Meeting and the Ark of the Testimony with oil and the table and all its equipment and the menorah and its equipment and the incense altar and the altar of burnt offering and all its equipment and the basin and the its stand. And you shall make them holy. Anyone who touches them will be holy.

Anyone who touches them will be holy.

When first thinking about this verse, I thought it perplexing. Think about the Golden Calf for a moment. The Israelites performed one of the most egregious communal sins exactly because of their desire to touch God, to see God, to know God through something tangible - something they could touch.

But in this portion, God tells Moses that we should place a high value on touching various religious items. It seems difficult to blame the Israelites for worshipping the Golden Calf when God explicitly talks about the holiness that is conferred by touching religious objects.

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Judaism is quite clear that physical objects do not hold some sort of mystical, magical power. You don't get some sort of divine reward for kissing the Torah, or for placing your hands on the Western Wall. But then, why does our Torah spend a few portions talking about entirely about physical objects and their importance?

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I think that it goes back to the line God uttered a in T'rumah: Make me a sanctuary that I might dwell inside. But this is the important piece; God does not require a special tabernacle in order to dwell amongst us. WE do. When we construct a building that takes effort, sacrifice, passion, spirit and talent, we find more value in that place.

Similarly, I think that God instructs us to build the tabernacle with such precise specifications and ornamentations so that when we are present, we feel a stronger sense of community, of spirituality, and of holiness.

It's not the act of touching objects that makes us holy. But it is partially the objects that bring us together to pray, to sing, to celebrate, to mourn, to perform mitzvot, and to become the best parts of ourselves. And that is holy.

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The Best Gift you can Give: T'rumah 01-31-2014

Why do we need this sanctuary? This room, with its Torahs and arks, the pews and prayerbooks, the ark and the Torah. Don't get me wrong, I love when we gather in here, especially when the heat is working ... There's a sense of community, friendship, meaning, power, spirituality -- all the reasons we want to worship in the first place. But why do we have to do it in this specific place?

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In our torah portion, T'rumah, God instructs the building of the first sanctuary, the mishkan. God says:

Speak to the people of Israel, that they bring me an offering; from every man that gives it willingly with his heart you shall take my offering.

The Israelites bring all sorts of materials together so that they can construct the tabernacle. They bring oils, rams' skins dyed red, onyx stones, gold, silver, linen ... oh, and don't forget the goat's hair!

The Israelites bring t'rumah - gifts. They contribute to the building of their future home.

And this room is our home. This sanctuary is a gateway to our temple.

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You and the other members of our synagogue sitting here tonight do not just belong to Congregation Children of Israel; you help to continually create and strengthen Congregation Children of Israel.

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I think this is why God instructs the Israelites to each contribute to the mishkan. In order for God to truly dwell amongst the community, it's important that everyone in the community contributes t'rumah.

The mishkan is not a start-up company. God did not look for a small number venture capitalists to insure the building of the structure. God looked to everyone in the community.

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And so, I ask each of us what our contribution is, our t'rumah. Each of us has talents, abilities and knowledge to contribute to the community. What are your gifts that you bring to us? It is these gifts that make our congregation.

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After the Israelites bring a surplus of materials, God then says:

Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

I don't think God is so vain that God requires us to build a specific room where we can pray and come together. But we need a regular meeting place. The sanctuary is for us.

But it's only after we bring our gifts, our contributions, our t'rumah that God dwells amongst us. It's not that God needs us to bring physical materials of wealth and substance. God does, however, ask that we bring our most precious possession - ourselves.

Trust in God but Tie Your Camel: B'shalach 01-10-14

Here is the translation of the first two verses that I chanted from this week's Torah portion, Bshalach.

And God said to Moses, 'Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the children of Israel that they should move! And you, lift your staff and reach your hand out over the sea - and split it!

And here is a famous Arab proverb: Trust in God, but tie your camel.

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After appearing to Moses in a burning bush, after performing 10 miracles and wonders in Egypt to get the Israelites attention, showcasing God's power, here we find the Israelites on the precipice of freedom. They are so close. There is but one more obstacle. The huge expanse of the Red Sea in front of them. They can hear the echoes of the Pharoah's best chariot riders getting louder and louder. After everything that has happened, it looks like the Israelites are going to be enslaved yet again.

In the previous verse, Moses tries to calm the people: Don't be afraid. Stand still and see God's salvation that God will do for you today.

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We're taught that God performed the plagues, God appeared in the burning bush and that God split the Red Sea. But even the text of the Torah suggests that God wants the Israelites to do something. God wants us to act: Speak to the children of Israel that they should move!

Praying to God is necessary but not sufficient. We must act in order to actualize our prayers.

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Midrash suggests that while the Israelites were waiting around, hoping for a miracle, a man named Nachson took matters into his own hands. He started singing Mi Chamocha and walked slowly into the waters of the Red Sea. All around him, his brothers and sisters, family and friends were beseeching God for a miracle, but Nachson continued to sing. Mi Chamocha Baelim Adonai - Who is Like You O God?

He was knee deep into the water, a good bit from the shoreline. As he sang the second verse, he sunk down into the sea and water entered his mouth. This is why we sing Mi Chamocha for the first verse and Mi Kamocha for the second.

He did not stop. He hummed while he walked underwater. After 30 seconds or so, he needed to come up for breath. It was at that point that God split the waters of the Red Sea.

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Looking at our Torah portion with the added perspective of this midrash, we see that yes, God did perform a great miracle. But it was predicated first on the Israelites showing courage, action, faith, and hope.

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In a few portions, we will recount the giving of the Ten Commandments as the Israelites stood under Mount Sinai. The first commandment hearkens back to the song of the sea and to our jubilant cries of freedom and joy: I am the God that freed you from Egypt.

God helps those that help themselves. It reminds me of the joke in which an old man is upset that he never once has won the lottery, despite never once buying a lottery ticket. Nachson did not just pray. He did not throw his hands up and wait for God to do something. Nachson took action, which led to the Israelite's prayer being answered. So yes, we can trust in God, praying and beseeching Adonai in prayer and supplication. But I think that God also expects to trust in us - to take action ... to sing songs of miracles so that we can experience the reality of miracles.

Shabbat Shalom.

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The Miracle(s) of the Plagues: Bo 01-03-2014

One day the Pharoah awoke in his bed, there were frogs on his pillow and frogs on his bed. Frogs on his nose and frogs on his toes. Frogs here … Frogs there … Frogs were jumping everywhere.

The ten plagues. They are a part of our Torah and our history. They play a significant part in our Passover seder. Some of you might have bags with different nick-nacks used to portray the plagues. Ping pong balls for hail, a red sheet for blood, and my own favorite, sunglasses for darkness.

These toys and visual aids add a sensory element to our holiday. By seeing and touching, the rabbis hope that we are also able not just to remember, but to experience.

To me, this is the essence of our Torah, and of Judaism. THAT book in there – that is the source of our identity. It houses our memories and dreams, fears and hopes, history and ancestry. But that is ONLY the beginning. It becomes our own when we link it to our OWN lives; like when we drink four cups of wine and then sing at the tops of our lungs, “had gadya.” Yes, we're singing and having fun and spending time with family and friends. But more importantly, we are creating our Jewish identity anew.

Just a few minutes ago, we all stood for the Amidah. Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitzhak, Elohai Ya’akov, God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. But, wait a second, we only believe in one God. What’s with this God of Abraham, God of Isaac business? It teaches us that just as Abraham had a unique relationship with God, so did Isaac, so did Jacob, and SO DO WE. So,we study Torah, daven our liturgy, go to Hebrew School, have Bar Mitzvah, go to adult education classes first in order to learn from our collective history, but then to create it ourselves.

Which brings me back to the plagues.

The stories of the ten plagues resides very deeply in the Jewish soul. Actually, to call them the 10 plagues isn’t quite correct; a better translation is 10 “signs and portents,” “ten miracles.”

These miracles; these signs of God – they are so powerful because they are exactly that, they are signs of God. They were right in front of the Israelites faces. They weren’t private theophanies – moments in which one has direct, but private, contact with the divine. They were publicly shared experiences, moments in which there was no doubt of two things: 1) There is a God. 2) That God cares about ME and 3) That God cares about US.

I like to think that the miracles play such a role in our seders because we yearn desperately for the same.

We search for definitive actions from God – from a God that interacts in history, interacts in our lives. From a God that we know cares about us and protects us, from a God that will lead us to OUR promised lands, wherever, and whatever they might be.

And many of us may feel that we haven’t had those moments, or don’t have those experiences. And so, our Passover story – the story we tell ourselves ABOUT ourselves, gives us hope that indeed, that kind of God DOES exist, watching us, loving us, protecting us.

It can seem depressing – all too often, we rely solely on our history to illumine God and God’s relationship with us. Our Torah portion this week, in which God performs more miracles challenges us with a question. It calls from the past, “This was OUR reality as your ancestors, as we were strangers in a strange land. This was OUR truth. But what is YOURS?”

This Torah portion – our entire Torah - beseeches us to take its words, its stories and its experiences with God, and then go to find our own. As God says to Abraham, lech l’cha. Go forward – to our own divine encounters, our own history. Perhaps if we’re willing to look to the future with our OWN eyes, we too will see God’s miracles and portents. Shabbat Shalom.