Blogging the Torah: Parashat KiTissa, Go for the Bronze!

The only thing that is getting me through this week’s horrible snow, as opposed to last week’s horrible snow, is a day home with the Olympics. Sitting on my tuchis, watching the most amazing people do the unthinkable. They fly through the air on skis and boards. They hold their partners over their heads while they glide on skates. And they go from heartracing swift skiing to precision shooting. It boggles my mind. And throughout the coverage I’m hearing stories of people who are “just happy to be here.” They have no hope of getting on the podium. The Olympic experience is their medal. But for some it’s only the gold medal that will do.

That only-the-gold mentality was really made clear to me. Two athletes, Laura Mancuso, skiing the Super Combined Downhill, and Erin Hamlin, sliding in the Luge, were amazingly grateful to have made it onto the podium at all. Laura Mancuso was not expected to medal, and yet she managed to get the bronze. Erin Hamlin was the first American woman to ever medal in Luge and was thrilled to take the bronze. What made their gratitude at winning the bronze medal all the more endearing was that earlier in the week, Hannah Kearney was tearful at only winning the bronze in Women’s Moguls. She won the gold at the last Olympics in Vancouver and only the gold would do for her. In her interview, she expressed her disappointment at her placement, as if the bronze medal was meaningless.

Ironically, in this week’s Torah portion, gold does not represent success for the Jewish people. As Parashat KiTissa opens, we see God in dialogue with Moses, putting the final touches on the Ten Commandments. Moses has taken a long time up on the mountain, and the people at the bottom are getting a bit frightened. So they turn to Aaron and demand that he “make us a God.” These are people who are used to idols. They need a visual representation of God. And Aaron, perhaps fearing the rumblings of the crowd or maybe trying to keep the people busy for a while, instructs them to create the Golden Calf. This Golden Calf will be just one step in their doubting God, their doubting their ultimate mission, that will change the trajectory of the Israelites’ journey. Instead of going directly to the land of milk and honey, the people were doomed to wander for forty years until the current generation had passed on. The Golden Calf represents a forced transition period for the Israelites. It gives the Israelites time to become a community. It gives them time to mature. It’s like a gap-year that lasts for forty years.

For many of the athletes, these medals may also represent a transition point. Some are retiring soon. Some are striving for their last medal. Some are just getting their feet wet and this Olympics is part of their maturing process. Regardless of what happens, I think being an Olympian is an amazing feat. And to win the bronze medal would be just fine.

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If you have never seen this Golden Calf scene in Cecil B. DeMille’s, The Ten Commandments, it’s a must!

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Shabbat Morning with Dickens

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It was the first Shabbat of a much needed end-of-the-semester vacation. What’s a rabbi educator to do? Spend the morning in pjs, drinking coffee, reading the Times, and listening to NPR. What a treat to hear my favorite shows in real time and not via podcast. I hardly know how to hear “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” when I am not on the treadmill or subway. But instead of the regular Saturday morning routine, there was a special radio production of the novella A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Not ready to get up from my comfy chair, I took another bite of danish, and I spent Shabbat morning with Dickens.

As you might imagine, I am not a big Christmas movie watcher. It’s not my tradition now. But in the years before cable (yes, there was a time before cable) it was routine to see “White Christmas,” “It’s A Wonderful Life,” or “Miracle on 34th Street” annually. I did not usually watch the really Christmas-y movies. “White Christmas” was one of my favorites. Bing, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and the dancing legs of Vera-Ellen. And the music of Irving Berlin and others. Rosie and Vera-Ellen singing sisters.  And who isn’t weepy when the General comes downstairs to see his entire platoon assembled? Christmas was just a tiny piece of the story. But I digress.

I know that I once saw an old version of “A Christmas Carol” on late night TV. Turns out there were versions in 1938, 1951, 1999, and 2009 in addition to the spin-offs. I don’t think that I’ve ever read the book, but I know the general story. As I listened to this wonderful production, I realized what a Jewish story this is. Odd for the creator of the ugly character of Fagin in Oliver Twist.

For those who might not know the storyline of A Christmas Carol, here is the Wikepedia description:

A Christmas Carol is a novella by English author Charles Dickens, first published in serial form by Chapman & Hall on 17 December 1843. It tells the story of bitter old miser Ebenezer Scrooge and his transformation resulting from supernatural visits by Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come. The novella met with instant success and critical acclaim.

So, why do I think that this is a Jewish story? What’s not Jewish about it? A Christmas Carol embraces so many Jewish values! Scrooge’s journey through the Christmases of his past, present, and future represent a path to teshuvah, the act of turning around to living a righteous life. In the portion on Christmas future, the ghost doesn’t speak, leading us to believe that it’s Scrooge’s conscience doing the the talking. The month of Elul, the month before Rosh HaShannah, is all about introspection.

In the story, Scrooge is asked to support the needy. He scoffs at the idea. But after his transformation, he learns the true meaning of tzedakah. And in his transformation he pledges to help Tiny Tim, the ill son of his employee Bob Cratchit. Is this gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness) or tikkun olam (repairing the world)? Either way, taking care of the world’s neediest is a Jewish value, as is treating one’s employees well, as the Talmud teaches.

So what separates Jews from Christians? In this case it is the concept of mitzvot, the idea that we do these deeds because we are commanded to. Mitzvot elevate our deeds to a holy level.

Many of us have the custom of not studying Torah on Christmas Eve, known in some Ashkenaz communities as Nittel Nacht. But that doesn’t mean we stop “thinking Jewish.” It would be easy for me to say, as I write this on Christmas Eve, that we are all one, and while I hope that is true, I would rather have my bottom line be that we can find Jewish values–Middot–all around us.

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Oy! What’s Your Problem?

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Gratitude. It’s a difficult thing to remember. I recall that Oprah, when she had her regular show, had a series on gratitude and there were those that made fun, me included. It was a bit too touchy-feely for me. But life is busy, time passes, we change, and it’s hard to remember to be grateful. In the midst of alarm clocks, subways, deadlines, and crazy holiday crowds in NYC, an attitude of gratitude can be lost. Thankfully, my friend and colleague Susan Cosden reminds me to be grateful every day. On Facebook, she posts daily about what she has to be grateful for. She reminds me that I must force myself to sift through the good,the bad, and the really annoying, to find moments of gratitude. And I am grateful to Susan for her reminders.

I shouldn’t have to search very deeply to find out that I have much to be grateful for. Somedays it seems that I do. But the truth is, I shouldn’t have to. At this ripe old age of, well, let’s just say, it’s ripe, my parents are still alive and sort of healthy. I have a loving life partner who will soon stand next to me under the chuppah. My siblings and their spouses are both healthy and employed. All three of us even have graduate degrees! And I have 5 brilliant, gorgeous adult nieces who are all well on their way (sort of) to finding their life’s path. And let’s not forget two of the sweetest cats you could ever meet.

And yes, my cats wake me up way too early. And yes, my parents still have the ability to drive me nuts sometimes. My job could be…There was another school shooting…Have you seen the JETS and Giants this year. And yes, I wish….and I want… But there is still much to be grateful for. And it is times like this that remind me that I must be grateful.

In Judaism, we have a legal concept called the eruv. The eruv is an artificial border, often a wire, that rings a community to make it one. It could be the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem or the seawall of Manhattan. The purpose of the eruv is to allow people to carry or share from house to house on Shabbat, as if the community was one domain. (Carrying is one of the halachic – legal – prohibitions on Shabbat.) As we move into the future, I wonder if perhaps Facebook has become the new eruv. After all, it allows us to share information without borders, as if we are one domain. It allows us to extend our family and friends, keep in touch with someone you meet at a conference, make a new connection, or keep up with an old one. And it is through Facebook that I have more than once heard of a new baby, a grand child, a wedding. I have also learned sad, sometimes heartbreaking news. News from a parent, a friend, whose child died. Sometimes expected, sometimes not. Heartbreakingly, this has happened more than once. And we draw them close into the eruv.

And now, news of a parent, a member of the Jewish community, whose child has died. Many of us were brought together by the plight of Superman Sam who lost his fight with leukemia. I did not know the Sommer family personally, but they are part of the eruv.

Another rabbi posted about having to officiate at the funeral of his nephew, instead of his bris. I do not know him either,  although I suspect our trays brushed together once at the JTS cafeteria.  He too is part of the eruv.

Two friends lost a parent. We bring them in with virtual hugs.

Yes, there are things to bitch and moan about. A friend was snarky. I had to wait a long time for a bus. The cats got into the garbage yet again. But on the whole, there is much to be grateful for. And there are people out there in real pain who need us.  Maybe if we remember that, we can overcome the truly sucky parts of this project we call life. Then maybe, when sucky times come, we will have the strength to be there for one another.

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We’re Still Here!

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“Good times and bum times, I’m still here.”  So begins the venerable singer Elaine Stritch’s signature song “I’m Still Here.”  Even in a White House performance where she struggles to remember the lyrics, she is still here.  And I’m hoping she’ll be here for a long time!

This Hanukkah, I wonder whether this could be the Jews’ theme song.  At Hanukkah, we celebrate the miracle of our survival.  A small band of Jews known as the Macabbees beat the Greeks to recover the Temple in Jerusalem.  After this year of the Pew survey bringing news of  “good times and bad times,” as Stritch’s song says, we’re still here.  After years of certain men dictating how prayer must be conducted at the site of that Temple, the Women of the Wall celebrated their 25 anniversary of saying no, there is another way.

As a people, we’ve always found another way to stay alive.  (No Bee Gees please!)  The irony is that when the ultra-Jews say that we must practice the “authentic” way, I wonder what they mean.  As we are learning in the current string of Torah portions, Jacob had two wives and two mistresses, all living together. Is that “authentic” Judaism?  In Moses’ time, Judaism was transmitted through the father.  Is patrilineal decent the “authentic” way?  Certainly Reform Jews feel that it is valid.  The Kotel, the western supporting wall of the Temple, did not become an Orthodox synagogue with a mechitzah (separator of men and women) until well after the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967.  So what is the “authentic” way to pray at the Kotel?  Perhaps the Women of the Wall have it right.

So, why is there controversy about the latest concoction, Thanksgivikkah?  Both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are based in a fight for religious freedom.  Although in all fairness, the Pilgrims really wanted everyone to just observe their religion. They weren’t really into pluralism.

thanksgivikkah-1My friend and colleague, Juliet Barr, writes about the wonders of Thanksgivikkah in her My So-Called Blog.  She says:

…my kids have always thought Thanksgiving WAS a Jewish holiday.   Look at the evidence:  1. We are Jews.
2. There is ritual involved… we say the shehechyanu (a prayer expressing our thankfulness of being back together and reaching this auspicious time), candles on the table (though no blessing) and we go around the table and say what we are thankful for and we get our flu shots 3. there’s a huge meal for which 4. we are a little bit dressed up and 5. the good dishes are used.

On the other hand, Allison Benedikt wrote in Slate, “No Thanksgivukkah: The portmanteau holiday is bad for Jews and bad for America.”  She writes about how she doesn’t want her kids to think of Thanksgiving and a holiday for presents.

Shemini Atzeret was barely over before my parents started asking what my children want for Thanksgiving this year.

Don’t grandparents always bring presents?

While I have found the Thanksgivikkah mantra trying, I’m happy for anything that brings more interest to Jewish celebrations.  Think about it: Hanukkah has been promoted like never before.  As I am writing this, I am watching a giant dreidle perched on four pieces of gelt sliding and twirling its way down Broadway in the Thanksgiving Day parade! And it was introduced by an announcer saying “as you know…” as if the entire world knows about dreidles.  There are only 5 1/2 million Jews in this country, 1.74%!

So for those who are anti-Thanksgivikkah, this too shall pass.  And we will still be here.  And for those who are celebrating with candle lighting, turkey, and latkes, enjoy!  Because, we’re still here!

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Parashat Vayeshev: Who Hasn’t Wanted to Throw Their Little Brother in a Pit?

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A few days ago, a colleague and I were schmoozing before school.  She was trying to decide what to speak about at her pulpit this Shabbat.  I suggested tying in Thanksgiving, families coming together, reconciling.  Her response: “We’re not there yet.”

Yes, in the journey, we are not there yet.  At least not with the Joseph stories.  Last week, in Parashat VaYishlach, Jacob and Esau reconciled after many years. They came together to bury their father Issac, and to bury their differences.  Not an easy feat after all that Jacob stole from Esau.

And so the Joseph saga begins in Parashat Vayeishev.  His mother has just died while giving birth to his baby brother.  The text actually says that his father Jacob loved him the best and Jacob gave Joseph a fancy tunic, a coat of many colors.  Joseph has dreams that his brothers will bow down to him, and he is arrogant or immature enough to tell them.  So what do the brothers do when they have a chance?  First they think of killing him.  Then they throw him in a pit.  Then they decide to sell him to Midianite traders.  (Most of my 5th graders will say that they  thought of  doing this to their little siblings at one time or another.)  And as a final blow, they break their father’s heart by tell him that his favorite son is dead.  This is far from reconciliation. But it’s coming.  Wait a few weeks.

“We are not there yet.”  Maybe that is the point.  It is Thanksgiving, our quintessential American holiday about religious freedom.  This year it falls on the second day of Hanukah, our quintessential Jewish holiday celebrating our fight for religious freedom.  (Is there any one on this planet who has not heard that Thanksgiving and Hanukah have collided to create Thanskgivikah for this year only?)  The time dictates that we get there, that we put on our best face and come together.  If we learn nothing about family life in the book of Bereshit, it is that families will come together in the end.  Well, maybe not Cain and Abel, but certainly in the line of Abraham.

This time of year, I always think about the movie Avalon, by Barry Levenson (a nice Jewish boy).  There is the famous scene where the brother who stayed in the city is late to Thanksgiving dinner because he can’t find his brother’s house in the rich suburbs. (It was a pre-cell phone world.) When he walks in, he sees that everyone has started eating, and he points his finger and utters the now famous line, “You cut the turkey!” And with that, more than just the turkey is cut.  The family is sliced apart forever.

So this Thanksgiving, let’s act a bit better than Jacob’s boys and Avalon’s boys.  Let’s put differences aside, smile when an old criticism is repeated, light our candles with a smile, and remember, if our ancestors can find peace and forgiveness, certainly we can too.  And remember, don’t cut the turkey until everyone has arrived.

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Last night I came home to the news that an extended family member had died.  Phil Merker was 91.  I didn’t know Phil well.  He was a nice man.  (And he must have passed that along, because his children are nice.) Nice goes far with me!  When I last saw him a year ago at Thanksgiving, he looked dapper.  Most of us were casually dressed, but he had a suit jacket and bow tie on.  He told us about his life in his retirement apartment.  Every afternoon included a little vodka.  I think that is what kept him going all these years.  Along with his children and grandchildren.  It is times like these that I would like to believe in Olam HaBah — the World to Come.  I would like to think that Phil is reunited with his beloved Alta, sharing a little afternoon vodka somewhere.

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Parashat Toldot: And You Thought Your Family Was Dysfunctional

When we last saw Issac, he had just survived an almost assassination, uh, I mean sacrifice attempt, by his own father, which may or may not have caused the death of his mother. Now that Issac is going to live, and clearly family relations are tense, Abraham sends his aide to find a wife for Issac. Enter Rebecca, who is lovely and welcoming, and Isaac falls in love.

As this Parashat Toldot opens, Rebecca is barren, so Isaac prays to God for her to conceive. She does and twins struggle inside her. So we know that there is going to be trouble from the start. We learn that Jacob, mom’s favorite, tricks his older brother Esau twice. First, when Esau is really hungry, Jacob trades him red soup for his birthright. (So half of the synagogues in America are having red lentil soup at their oneg this Shabbat.) Later on, when it is time for Esau to receive his blessing from his father, Jacob tricks him again and steals it. This time, mom helps. Jacob dresses up in animal skins to mimic the ruggedness of his brother (did he know it was going to be Halloween?), while Mom cooks up her choice kids to feed Dad. (Isn’t it amazing how much an old man can eat?) Issac, more than a bit blind at this point in his life, mistakes Jacob for Esau, and gives Jacob the blessing, a.k.a. the first born’s inheritance. Esau realizes what has happened and begs his father for a blessing too. His Dad gives him one, but it is not really the same. Esau threatens Jacob. Mom appears to save Jacob once more by warning him to leave town. And so he does. And Esau, knowing that marriage to a Canaanite woman would displease his father, intermarries.

Whew! Is this not a soap opera? As the Torah Turns? Days of Our Lives? All My Children? Close. But seriously, does this story not show that our ancestors are human? Who doesn’t feel at some point as if one parent favors their sibling, whether or not it is true? As little kids, siblings always trick one another to get the last pudding or a special favor. In some families, this can go onto adulthood. Surprise, surprise. Every mother isn’t Donna Reed. And all siblings are not like on the Brady Bunch, happily sharing a tiny bedroom. Some marry outside the faith and as we’ll see, some siblings have the ability to grow up later and reconcile. And some fathers don’t seem to participate a lot, just like Isaac.

And what about Esau? Did he have special needs? Was he unloved by his mother? Was he the hunter because his mother didn’t think he was smart enough to be a professional? A professor of mine in graduate school suggested that Esau was the first case of someone with Attention Deficit Disorder. He was so ADD that he thought his hunger would cause him to die. “What good is my birthright if I am going to die?” If he had special needs, shouldn’t his parents have protected him better? Clearly, his inability to use proper judgement was expensive. A teacher of mine once described that when her son comes in the house claiming to be “dying of hunger,” she responds, “don’t act like Esau.”

So, if our ancestors are human, why is their story divine? Perhaps to teach us that we humans can also be divine. The Torah is the story of our people, warts and all. And just like with our own personal stories, we make mistakes, we struggle for the right think to do, and if we are lucky, we can still get a blessing or reconcile wrongs. It is up to us to act.

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Blogging the Torah: Parashat Noach, Even the Umbrellas are Closed

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We are into the fast-paced section of the Torah. In just one portion, we covered all of creation, Adam and Eve, Eden, Cain and Abel and more. It seems that last week God create the earth and this week, God was ready to destroy it. Instead, God decided to just destroy almost all of its people. I’ve often wondered if this was simply a downgrade and whether there was a planet before earth that God completely destroyed and with this planet God is just trying a bit of temper control. So God goes to Noah and tells him to build an ark. Most of use know the general story.

It starts with “Eleh toldot Noah – These are the generations of Noah, Noah eash tzadik tamim hayah b’dorotav – Noah was a righteous man, he was innocent in his generation.” When a name is repeated in the Torah, there is clearly a reason and the commentators have great discussions on this. If Noah was the most righteous of his generation, does that mean he was actually a good person (whatever that may mean) or was he just better than the others around him? Were the people around him so sleazy that he didn’t have to do much to pass the test?

The portion goes on to say that the earth became corrupt, so corrupt that God looked down and decided to end all living beings on earth. So God chose the best, or maybe one of the best, who had a family that could perpetuate life, to lead the movement to carry on. And as the song says, “the animals, they came on, they came on by twosies twosies…” I can’t help wondering, if this were to happen today, who would God choose. Would God look down at our government and even find one Republican congressman to pick? Would it be John Boehner, the leader of those who have shut down the government, endangering our economy? Would it be Iowa Representative Steven King who has used his discretion to keep his salary and to not furlough any of his staff so they can still afford groceries at Safeway? I heard him say on the radio that this is war and we are not going to reduce our staff in a time of war. Really? War? Really? Would it be Rep. Marlin Stutzman who said “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this, and I don’t know what that even is.” Sounds like the average two year old at the check out line, grabbing any prize that mommy will give him. And if we look at the senators, I wonder if it would be Ted Cruz, one of the presumed leaders of this movement, who is dead set on stopping the Affordable Care Act which was voted on by Congress, affirmed by the Supreme Court, and affirmed by the people of this country by the reelection of the President. He has said, that once people get healthcare, it will hang around, and they’ll like it. Yup! Just like Medicare I suspect. (Don’t worry, for some reason, Medicare is not affected. I bet it’s because Congress knows that the people who receive Medicare would have them on a spit if they cut it!)

Somehow, I doubt it would be any of them, even though they all claim to be good, religious folk. Somehow, I would like to think that God wouldn’t pick a person who is relishing in the shutdown when it means that the National Institutes of Health must cancel drug trials to help the sickest. When it means that VA processing just gets more backlogged. When average folks who don’t make a lot of money like the people who clean government offices or work in the museum gift shops can’t feed their families. Many of those folks have already been furloughed 1 day a week because of the sequester.

Personally, I think Congress is more like a scene out of the end of today’s portion. The people all spoke one language and they decided to build a tower so massive and so tall that they would “na-aseh lanu shem – make a name for ourselves.” They wanted to show how big they were. As a child I was told that they were building a tower to God, but as I read the text, I am not so sure. It seems that just like the folks in Washington, they wanted to show how big they could be, how important they could be, and how powerful they could be. As the folks in the Torah’s story grow the tower larger and larger, God confounds their speech and all of a sudden, people are speaking different languages and they can no longer work together. It seems the same is true with our Congress. No one seems to be speaking the same language. Everyone is speaking their own language and there is no communication.

So maybe we need to go back before the Tower of Babel. Maybe if Congress could forget about how massive and powerful they are, or think they are, they can talk to each other and get this country rolling again.  They may all be speaking English, but they are certainly now communicating. It may seem like a trickle now, but if this goes on much longer, there will be a flood nearly as destructive as the one Noah survived.

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We Are What We Don’t Eat

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They say we are what we eat.  In this case, I think what we are is what we don’t eat.

I couldn’t have said this better than my dear friend, Jewish educator extraordinaire, Juliet Barr.

My So-Called Blog: Thursday Was Definitely Not Pasta Day.

Be sure to check out Juliet’s other blog posts.  They are the joint!

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Coincidence, I Think Not

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I had a friend who lived with a terrible lung disease.  She used to say, “God doesn’t micromanage.” I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the idea that every little occurrence has some meaning beyond what it is.  Somehow I just always picture that things land the way they do. The phrase, “things happen for a reason” will not leave my lips. And although I might tease about karma, it’s not really in my belief system. But sometimes….

Any page of Talmud is likely to contain many wide-ranging ideas.  After all, it’s an oral record of a conversations that took place over few hundred years, in various locations, before instant messaging and hyperlinks. Sometimes the placement of placement of discussions makes sense in a weird way.  I remember studying the laws of how much matzah we need to eat along with Sukkot.  The connection? They are both seven-day holidays.  And sometimes, you just have to wonder.

Recently, I have been thinking about a piece of Talmud text that I once learned.

Raba said, When one is led in for Judgement, (when one dies), one will be asked, ‘Did you deal faithfully (with integrity, honestly with others in your business dealings’).”

Do we treat our employees, contractors, babysitters, dog walkers fairly? Do we make promises in business that we do not keep?

I remember learning this text as part of a greater lecture and not from the Talmud page. It turns out that it is from Shabbat 31a, which holds other treasures. On this page, we find another famous text that I also learned independently, without knowing where it came from. This text actually comes first on the page.

A non-Jew comes up to Hillel and says, “Teach me the whole of Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor.”

So here I was, at the end of Sukkot, as we celebrate the Torah itself, thinking about the juxtaposition of these two texts. Coincidence? I think not. I believe that they can both be distilled to: treat others the way you want to be treated, whether in personal relationships or in business. A nice thought to remember as we start this New Year.

But, as I read through the papers in the last weeks, I can’t help but notice that there are many who must have missed these texts. During this festival of Sukkot, when we are commanded to invite our ancestors into our sukkot, so many in our nation’s leadership have chosen to leave the neediest among us at the doorway. There are those in Congress who have sought to gut (no pun intended) the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food-stamp program, which helps so many working poor feed their families. For many with one or two or even three low-waged jobs, there salaries aren’t enough. And on top of that, these same so-called leaders are trying their best to defund the Affordable Care Act which aims to do just that, bring affordable care to so many. Those leaders, with their excellent salaries and health care, many of whom quote the bible often enough, seem to have a disconnect between the text that they put their hand on during their swearing in and the actions that the take once they are on the job.

On Simchat Torah, we conclude our reading of the Torah scroll and start anew. In just a few weeks we will read of Abraham and Sarah, and how they welcomed the strangers into their tent. So soon after Sukkot, we are reminded that what we have is not for us alone. As children, one of the first social skills we learn is sharing. I can’t help wonder why as adults, so many of our nation’s leadership has abandoned this simple idea.

Danny Siegel, the noted tzadik and founder of the Ziv fund posed the question, “Why is there no bracha (blessing) for tzedakah.” We have so many brachot, it is a wonder that we do not have one for this basic mitzvah of righteous giving. He says,

if we are to be constantly aware of God’s Intimate Presence in the world, the very act of Tikkun Olam contains within the act itself a sense of the Divine Presence. Even if we think we are doing it automatically, the Presence is there. We only need to feel its existence.

Maybe that is our challenge for the new year. Instead of talking about God, let’s just act like God for our actions are godly.

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Unetanah Tokef: Not By Me Alone

ImageIt’s been a difficult week. It’s not just the normal Rosh HaShannah / Yom Kippur crazyness with school beginningImage in the midst of it all. This year, the anniversary of 9/11 landed right in the middle of the two holidays. For me, 9/11 is the day that I remember my friend Steve Jacobson, a true tzadik, along with all those others who were senselessly murdered on that day. So the closeness of the dates, just as in 2001, does not make it easy to read the Unetanah Tokef.

Unetanah Tokef, is added to the repetition of the musaf service just before the Kedushah on Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. This piyyut–liturgical poem–which is thought to date to the 11th century, describes God as the judge and prosecuter for our acts and the sentence that will be served. While teshuvah (changing our ways), tzedakah (righteous giving), and tefillah (sincere prayer) can avert or lessen the severity of the decree, the decrees are horrendous.

Who will live and who will die.

Who will live a long life and who will come to an untimely end;

who will perish by fire and who by water;

who by sword and who by beast;

who by hunger and who by thirst;

who by earthquake and who by plague.”

The list is a bit mind boggling. And after 9/11, I could not hear this. I could not conceive that my friend would perish by fire in some sort of divine plan. Here was a person who would at times work all night and then go to the synagogue in the morning to open up for minyan. Here was a father and husband. Could it be that this was his destiny and the destiny of so many others?

So I began to leave the room for Unataneh Tokef if I was not leading the service. That changed this Rosh HaShannah. Recently, I heard one of my favorite teachers, Cantor Ellen Dreskin, speak on this prayer and I realized that I had been looking at it all wrong. It wasn’t that each victim had earned their fate. Stuff happens and we have the opportunity to change it. And when we do good, we don’t necessarily change it for us. Prayer is not a direct call and response. It is only part of the formula. Maybe it’s the “pay it forward” idea. Maybe there is some universal karma that all sucks up all of our deeds and balances them out. I don’t know. But I do know that it’s not just about me. I am part of something bigger and I must do so others can have.

So I wonder, what we can do.

Teshuvah: Can we turn around by looking inside and returning to our essence, stripping away the flash and superficial stuff in our lives and concentrating on who we are and what we are made of?

Tefillah: Can we use our prayer to be introspective and motivate us to action?

Tzedakah: Can we use our resources, both financial and physical, to help change the world? Can we be generous with our goodness throughout the world? Can we see our interactions with others as sacred?

Cantor Dreskin suggested that we each have a secret mitzvah. Can we do without anyone knowing about it?

It is said that with the ne’ilah service tomorrow night, the gates are closing, although the rabbis give us a reprieve until the end of Sukkot on HoShanah Rabbah. I prefer to think of the gates as a revolving door. There are constantly new opportunities for doing good coming at us. It’s up to us to choose when we will grab hold of the door and go on through.

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