Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Optimism Now, Apocalypse Later (Jewish Week)
I was scheduling a lifecycle event with a congregant the other day and we ran into a snag having to do with his 27-year-old daughter's vacation schedule.
"Oh, sorry rabbi," he said, "that weekend will be impossible. Amy will be trekking in Vietnam."
It turns out that she'll be there with a friend, another young congregant who, as I recall, became bat mitzvah the day before yesterday. It also turns out that 'Nam has become an increasingly popular place to visit, to the tune of five million tourists this year, according to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, the highest number in two decades.
It used to be that most Americans 20-somethings who went over to Vietnam did so rather more reluctantly, many returning in body bags. But those who were once terrified of sending their sons are now freely sending their single young granddaughters.
If Americans can be welcomed as tourists in My Lai, it seems logical that Palestinians and Israelis might be able to sip tea together in Ramallah. Why not? As the world continues shrinking, the inconceivable is becoming routine overnight. Thirty-five years ago, when the last Americans helicoptered out of Saigon, who could have imagined a world where one could freely crisscross Berlin or buy matzah in Moscow. If the Pope can endorse condoms, then pigs truly can fly - or at least they can practice safe sex.
A new kind of domino theory is taking hold, replacing the antiquated ethos of the Cold War era. Everywhere we look, walls of separation are crumbling. France and Germany share the same currency, Turkey and Greece share tourists by the boatload and South Africans all share the same multicolored flag. Wherever you look, ancient feuds are melting away. Shimon Peres' vision of a New Middle East seems to actually be happening, at least everywhere but in the Middle East.
Israel long ago got aboard the global gravy train and the dissolution of international enmities has fueled its economic rise. Jews have always flourished in a world without walls. Now we hear that Israel's high-tech prowess might have yielded an enormous security dividend - the Stuxnet computer worm, rumored to have caused extensive damage to the Iranian nuclear program. Add to that the recent discovery of massive natural gas and oil reserves, along with the improved security and economic situation for West Bank Palestinians, and this year's Chanukah lights might just be signaling us to abandon cynicism and believe in miracles again. This time, the peace process could actually work.
After the collapse of Oslo, it's not easy to be an optimist. But guarded hopefulness should not be confused with messianic fervor. Messianism is in fact our greatest danger, for it leads to xenophobia and military adventurism. The rabbis understood that, which is why the name Maccabee, which they came to associate with such adventurism, was virtually expunged from the Talmud.
It's the messianic yearnings of those who detect darker trends in history that threaten to hijack the peace train. Fundamentalism in all its guises is the enemy right now. The Iranian mullahs and their Gazan and Lebanese proxies rank highest on that list - by far. Jewish fundamentalists, while far less destructive, also possess a dark vision of the world, one fueled by visions of apocalyptic devastation, conspiracy theories and a stark delineation of Us from Them, with the definition of "Us" growing narrower by the minute.
And because the haredim and nationalist extremists hold disproportionate sway in the Israeli government, they are especially dangerous. Each outrageous act only serves to isolate Israel more and more in the eyes of the world and American Jewry. If the greatest danger to Israel now is delegitimization, their provocations are only adding fuel to the Goldstone-stoked fire.
The squabble with the Obama administration over the settlement freeze would hardly have caused a ripple if it had not occurred immediately following last summer's Rotem Bill fiasco and the plethora of annulled conversions, the arrest of Anat Hoffman for carrying a Torah, the creeping haredi annexation of the Western Wall, the Jim Crow-like treatment of women on busses and public streets, and talk of loyalty oaths and the transfer of Israeli Arabs. Throw in the repeated insults to Joe Biden over Jerusalem construction and excuse us for wondering if Glenn Beck is running the show over there.
There's been much consternation lately over J Street. A synagogue near Boston even disinvited their president Jeremy Ben-Ami recently, sending a horrible message to turned-off Jews everywhere. But with all the questions raised about J Street, some quite justified, no one has asked how such a "radical, fringe group fronting for Israel's enemies" now counts over 500 in its rabbinic cabinet. I would venture to say that not every one of them is an unwitting lackey for the so-called "Puppet Master," George Soros. Some rabbis are actually fairly bright people.
I know why I was one of the signers, and why I did not disinvite Ben-Ami when he appeared at my synagogue just a week after the J Street-Soros connection was revealed.
I signed because my fear of an Israel driven by dark apocalyptic visions trumps my more limited fear that American Jews are speaking with multiple, conflicting voices.
Israel can survive vigorous diaspora dialogue - it has for decades. But it cannot survive with people at the wheel who think God loves land more than peace, who deny the humane values that Jews have held for millennia.
My concern for Israel is so deep that I am willing to proclaim publicly that the messianists could be messing up the last good chance for peace. I love Israel too much to stay silent.
Miracles happen, and all conflicts end, eventually. Even the Hatfields and McCoys signed a truce not long ago. Our girls are trekking in the very homeland of "Apocalypse Now." There's no reason this pig can't fly.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., and writes the Hammerman on Ethics column for The Jewish Week online. He and New York Times “Ethicist” columnist Randy Cohen will participate in a Jewish Week Forum on “Ask The Ethicists” on Tuesday, Dec. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Emanu-El, 10 E. 66th St. The event is free but reservations are suggested. Events@jewishweek.org.
Outrageous Hanukkah Wikileaks Disclosures
But now that revelations are spewing forth by the wiki-second, I feel safe in revealing these recently discovered classified dispatches from the secret e-files of Judah Maccabee:
Text to his brother Eliezer after the swine-in-the-temple incident (Leaker's note - their disparaging nickname for Antiochus was "Anti-tochus):
"Anti-tochus went too far this time. He sort of looks like that pig. And did you see that women he travels with? Sort of a cross between Muammar Gaddafi and Angela Merkel"
E-mail to Hannah, after the martyrdom of her seventh son.
"Way to go, H. Not to worry. Someday there will be a holiday and everyone will eat donuts and potato pancakes! That'll show 'em. Maybe we'll even name the holiday after you... I know... Hannah...kah!"
Friday, November 26, 2010
Israeli TV Accessible to Americans
Counting our Blessings on Thanksgiving
Here's a way to bring Jewish content to our Thanksgiving meals.
As we sit down with our families at the table, pause for a moment to remember how fortunate we are, to be thankful for every moment that we are alive, for the capacity to love and to share. Say a spontaneous prayer and try to give it a Jewish context - the formula for a blessing would be perfect. Just begin as we would with any blessing, "Baruch ata Adonai, Elohaynu Melech ha-olam" and then add, in English "we are so thankful for ___."
Tradition instructs us to try to utter 100 blessings every day, whether spontaneous or not. Some can be found in the grace after meals (see Birkat Ha-mazon explained in Wikipedia and in the Jewish Virtual Library) If you would like to add some or all of that beautiful prayer to your Thanksgiving meal, it can be downloaded at Birkat Hamazon [pdf]
Airport Screenings and Jewish Ethics: Hammerman on Ethics (Jewish Week)
See my answer here.
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Hanukkah: National or Family Needs - Which Comes First?
Parsha Packet for Mikketz - Hanukkah: Sweet Vengeance
Parsha Packets: Jewish Symbols and the Problem of Chrismukkah
At what point does the blending of cultures take so much away from two distinct celebration that each loses its true meaning, and the groups lose their distinctiveness? Can this blending be avoided? Click here for the Parsha packet, "Jewish Symbols and the Problem of Chrismukkah"
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Andrew Young on Vayishlach
Good morning, everyone. My name is Andrew Young and I’ll be your host for this edition of, ESPN’s Torah-Center, the world’s most comprehensive telecast for anything related to Jews and Sports.
And that’s the end of our show today...thanks for coming.
No, just kidding. In fact, there’s lots of news today, and believe it or not, it all has to do with this week’s Torah portion.
This week’s portion is Va-yish-lach. It begins with Jacob sending his messengers to speak to Esau. The two hadn’t seen each other in 20 years, since the big birthright upset. Jacob’s messengers return and report that Esau is on his way to see Jacob, along with 400 armed men. Apparently, Esau likes to bring his own fans, preferring not to give anyone home-field advantage.
Not surprisingly, Jacob is afraid. He fears that Esau will kill him and his family. So he divides his family and his possessions into two, hoping that one half could escape if the other is attacked by Esau and his men.
Jacob then prays to God for protection. He starts sending Esau and his advancing men a parade of gifts. The Torah tells us specifically what he sent – two hundred female goats; twenty male goats; two hundred female sheep; twenty rams; thirty camels and their colts, forty cows, ten bulls, twenty donkeys and ten horses. Personally, I wouldn’t be very pleased with any of those gifts, and neither would my mom. That, sports fans, is a lot of pets!
But, the night before that happens, Jacob wrestles with someone, and emerges victorious from an all-night steel cage wrestling match... OK, so maybe there was no steel cage. The mysterious opponent is either God, an angel, himself, or maybe even Esau! Jacob emerges the champion, but he injures his hamstring. Not bad enough to be put on the DL, at least not back then when men were a lot tougher. But the injury is bad enough that he’s limping, and he clearly complains quite a bit about it, because all Jews then decide not to eat the part of the thigh that Jacob injured, somehow insisting that we needed another rule about keeping kosher. As if we needed even more of those rules! During the fight, Jacob might have had some memory loss, because he keeps telling everyone that his name isn’t Jacob, but Israel, which means “someone who has wrestled with God and prevailed.”
You know, in Judaism, we wrestle with ourselves a lot, trying to stretch ourselves to the limit and beyond and do things we wouldn’t normally be able to do. This reminds me of some of my experiences on the baseball diamond, like the time I was given a game ball and I felt my teammate deserved it more. So I gave it to him. But then he gave it back to me and we just kept tossing it back and forth. The two of us were sort of wrestling for the other one to have the ball, even though both of us hoped to get it. In a way, I was struggling with myself to be a good teammate every bit as much as I was struggling with him over the ball.
Some people believe that Jacob may have been wrestling with an angel, or with Esau, or Esau’s shadow - but I believe he was really wrestling with his own fears. All his life he had been running away from those fears, and from Esau. It was time to confront both of them. And once he did that, he was not the same person anymore. So it was time for him to have a new name.
Anyway, he survives the wrestling match, and when he finally meets Esau, he’s relieved to see that, after 20 years, Esau is no longer mad at him. The two brothers kiss and hug and cry together.
This wasn’t an easy reunion for Jacob. Like a lot of things that we worry about, in hindsight, there wasn’t a lot to worry about. But if I look at Jacob’s side of the story as not just worrying, but also preparing as best as he knew how, I see the whole story a little differently. Despite the happy outcome of the reunion, this was a big deal for Jacob, and he prepared for it like it was Game 7 of the World Series. And he let everyone know it was a big deal, and he bothered half his family and a whole lot of animals in the process.
Jacob and Esau might be considered one of the earliest examples of true sibling rivalry. So in a way, I’ve been preparing for this portion, even living it, for the last several years. It’s been difficult, because of course, I know NOTHING about sibling rivalry. Right Marissa?
Seriously, I’ve worked hard, and for me, today is a big deal that involved a lot of worrying and a lot of preparation.
I know it’s not over, just like Jacob and Esau’s reunion was not the end of their story. But it’s nice to reach a resting point where I can stop worrying for a little while and celebrate with people who are so important to me.
Hanukkah E-Lesson - A Public or Private Observance?
From the Conservative Yeshiva:
Hanukkah: Public or Private Observance?
By Rabbi Hillel C. Lavery-Yisraeli
This E-Shiur is made possible by a generous grant from Temple Zion Israelite Center, Miami, Florida
CY Hanukkah E-shiur Sourcesheet 2010 (pdf)
CY Hanukkah E-shiur 2010 (pdf, printable version of this webpage)
Hanukkah is often celebrated as the holiday of “religious freedom.” More accurately, it is a holiday celebrating our ability to practice Judaism unhindered, without pressure or influence to do otherwise. At the time, in the second century BCE, many Jews attempted to combine their ancient Jewish practices with newly popular Hellenistic ones; the Maccabees sought to put an end to this.
Though Hanukkah customs abound, such as eating oily foods, spinning tops, gambling, school plays and synagogue parties, the days of Hanukkah are halakhically distinguished from the others in two ways: changes in our regular daily prayers (“Al HaNissim” in Amidah and Birkat HaMazon, recitation of Hallel, and a special Torah reading), and the lighting of a special Hanukkah lamp (today called a menorah or Hanukkiah).
The main elements of the Hanukkah story are the miracles that happened at the time: the victory over the Syrian-Greek forces (“the few against the many”), and the little cruse of oil which burned for eight days – for which we light candles nowadays. A main theme of the Hanukkiah-lighting ritual is “Pirsumei Nisa” – publicizing the miracle. This concept is often misunderstood and misused, for example when giant Hanukkiyot are set up in public spaces, as I will explain later. We shall analyze several passages in the Talmud to understand “Pirsumei Nisa“ better.
[Source א:] The Talmud (Shabbat 23b) deals with poor people who cannot afford to perform all the mitzvot incumbent upon them and therefore must choose which to perform (and which not). It gives preference to the mitzvah that will provide comfort for the family (Shabbat candles) over the Hanukkah lamp, from which no use or benefit may be derived. On the other hand, the rabbinic requirement of lighting on Hanukkah comes before the rabbinic requirement of saying Shabbat Kiddush over wine, since the Hanukkah light has the special quality of “Pirsumei Nisa“. For whom is this “Pirsumei Nisa” done? If it were a need of the community, perhaps it would override one’s family’s needs, as communal needs usually take precedence. However, this is not the case here. The “Pirsumei Nisa” only overrides a family’s other ritual needs.
[Source ב:] The Talmud in Shabbat 21b determines that the Hanukkah lamp should be lit “from sunset until the streets are empty,” a time period in which it will be seen, even if it is only by stragglers (the poor, non-Jewish wood-gatherers – Rashi). The discussion then raises two different interpretations of what this phrase means: 1) that it is the time period during which it must be lit (without specifying how long the lights must burn), and accordingly, if the streets are empty, it’s too late; or 2) that it fixes the length of time it must be capable of burning, regardless of when it’s actually lit (even if late at night), which assigns less importance to it being seen.
[Source ג:] Like the time for lighting the Hanukkiah, so too the location is very important. The Talmud in Shabbat 21b instructs that it be placed strategically so that it will be visible to others – outside one’s doorway, or in a street-facing window if one lives above street-level. And the Hanukkiah must not be placed too high (Shabbat 22a) – if it’s more than twenty cubits (approx. 9.6 m) above street level, people won’t be able to see it easily and one doesn’t fulfil her/his obligation.* The ability for the public to see the Hanukkiah is an integral requirement.
Yet the public’s viewing is not our only consideration. The Hanukkiah must be recognizable as belonging to one’s house (Shabbat 21b) – within a handbreadth of the doorway, or in the window. The Talmud (Shabbat 23a, not on the Source Sheet) indicates that one away from home should have someone else light there if possible; lighting on a bus, in an airport, on an airplane, in a public square, at city hall, or at a party does not discharge one’s obligation, and a blessing recited over such a lighting would sadly be in vain. In times of danger (21b) when the balance of public-private observance – just outside one’s residence – is not feasible, the Hanukkiah is moved indoors; “Pirsumei Nisa” in such circumstances is limited to one’s family. The only exception to the requirement that the lighting be at one’s residence is the lighting in the synagogue before our evening prayers, also for “Pirsumei Nisa“. Even so, the one who lights there has not fulfilled her/his obligation, and lights again at home with a blessing. Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim, 671:7. (Lighting candles in shul in the morning is a mere custom, no obligation is fulfilled and no blessing is said.)
Jews in the diaspora have clearly been influenced by the way our neighbors celebrate Christmas. Some Jews may feel a need to compete, using giant Hanukkiyot and public lightings attended by dignitaries. But this was not the intended nature of Hanukkah’s “Pirsumei Nisa“. In Judaism, Hanukkah is a minor holiday. “Pirsumei Nisa” is meant to be observed primarily with our families, and shared with our community but from within the family setting. It is to emphasize how Judaism is safe and strong when we safeguard it in our homes. This balance of public and private observance is what gives Hanukkah its special nature, and is one that should not be overlooked.
*One whose window is more than 10 meters above street level should, if possible, light at the entrance of the building, or in the hallway at the entrance to his/her apartment. Some say that if there are other windows level to and looking towards his/hers, then one’s window can be used even if it’s more than 10 meters above street level. When none of these is possible, one relies on the dispensation mentioned in Source ג (originally for times of danger) and lights inside one’s home.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Monday, November 22, 2010
A Special Place in Hell-Israel News - Haaretz Israeli News source.
An astute Israeli journalist travels to America to see why so many American Jews have been turned off to Israel, and he discovers, amazingly, that it seems to be in the Israeli government's interest to turn them off even more.
Friday, November 19, 2010
Cheating Scandal at Central Florida
UCF Cheating Scandal Follow Up of the Day: Nearly two weeks after University of Central Florida professor Richard Quinn used highly-detailed analysis to accuse many of the 600 students in his Strategic Management course of cheating on their midterm exam, over 200 have come forward to admit to using a stolen test bank to determine the answers.
“I don’t want to have to explain to your parents why you didn’t graduate, so I went to the Dean and I made a deal,” Quinn said during the 15-minute lecture in which he laid out his reasoning for the accusation (above). “The deal is you can either wait it out and hope that we don’t identify you, or you can identify yourself to your lab instructor and you can complete the rest of the course and the grade you get in the course is the grade you earned in the course.”
Despite the egregious nature of this incident, Quinn said he was “looking forward to moving past this incident and focusing on the rest of the semester.”
Thursday, November 18, 2010
God and Messiah: A Sourcebook
Stealing Truth: Is It Ever Ethical to Deceive?
Davvenology 101: The Power of the Word
Davennology 101: Mah Tovu and the Search for Home
Growing Gender Segregation in Israel Exposed
IRAC, the Reform movement’s Action Center, has published a comprehensive 50-page report entitled "Separation Between Men and Women in Public Places." The report analyzes the expansion of gender segregation over the past decade to encompass buses, government and municipal offices, health clinics, sidewalks and private businesses such as stores and restaurants. The report was presented to the Knesset last week.
The report’s authors stress, "The report’s aim is to expose social processes taking place in Israeli society that are supported by authorities even though they are against the law and there has been no public debate on the subject."
In recent years, the NIF family has fought an intensive campaign against growing gender segregation in Israel's public cases and has won court orders regarding segregated buses and sidewalks.
Read more about the report in the Jerusalem Post
Here is IRAC's first-hand report:
I have such great respect for the Beatles. They were huge, and they changed the world through their music. At IRAC, we strive to be the Beatles of pluralism. We try to get Israel to walk to a different beat. This week, I decided to borrow a few words from John, Paul, George and Ringo (in blue) to bring you up to speed with our work with the government.
Last Tuesday, we reeled and rocked in the Knesset. IRAC hosted a conference, with a little help from our friends in the Knesset, called Mudarot La’mhadrin, which translates roughly into Excluded Due To Mehadrin (ultra-Orthodox Jewish requirements for modesty or kashrut). Citizens, leaders of organizations and communities, professors and Members of Knesset spoke up about gender segregation in the public sphere.
Our legal team presented a 42-page report compiled over the past several years documenting how this phenomenon is escalating, with numerous cases—on buses, on public streets, at the Western Wall, even at medical clinics—showing that the increasingly strict ultra-Orthodox rules do not only separate men and women, but also humiliate them and keep them in a subjugated position. While it’s only available in Hebrew at the moment, I assure you that it is being translated into English and will be available soon.
We had a full room, and they saw the photographs that we presented showing real-life examples of segregation and signs that enforce it. Women and men spoke their minds, demanding that the State fix a hole where the rain gets in. One woman shared that she was excluded from her own father’s funeral ceremony, explaining that the funeral director told her that only men could partake in certain parts of the ceremony. Those who shared were no longer seen as fools on the hill; leaders in the government and members of the press listened intently throughout the conference.
Next month, we’re holding another session about issues of marriage. The conference on the subject of freedom of choice in marriage will advocate for a large portion of Israeli society who come from back in the USSR who could get married anywhere but not in Israel, their own country.
There are many members of Knesset who disagree with our continued presence there. I’ve got a feeling it will be a long and winding road, but we’re working eight days a week, and it’s getting better all the time.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Parsha Packets for Vayishlach: Darfur, Names and Peace
Darfur and the Jewish Soul (2008)
What's in a Jewish Name (and why we change them)? (2009)
And this years...
Waging Peace - This year we explore Jewish sources regarding the prime value of making peace - whether it between family members (Hello, Thanksgiving!), nations (say, Israelis and Palestinians), or in our communities. See stories by Carlebach and Gilad Shalit, and find out what we can learn from why the Egyptian plover bird cleans out the gums of the African crocodile.
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvha Commentary: Richard Greenbaum on Vayishlach
Last summer, I was playing chess with my camp social worker, who happens to be an excellent chess player. Early in the game, he captured my queen. Now in chess, losing a queen is not the best thing that can happen. It’s a big blow. When it happens, your chances of winning are slim, especially against a tough opponent.
However, the only thing in chess worse than losing a queen is giving up entirely, which I didn’t do. It was a long, intense match, about an hour. In the end, I was able to control the board with my bishops kept trying as hard as I could and I was able to win.
I’m sure you are all wondering how does my Torah portion connect to chess board and baseball games. The portion contains another kind of athletic competition, a wrestling match, one that lasted all night long. One of the wrestlers was Jacob. Of that we’re sure (although by the end of the night he had a different name – Israel). No one really knows who Jacob’s opponent was.
Many people think Jacob was wrestling against Esau’s angel. Others say he was wrestling himself.
What does it mean to wrestle with yourself? I’ve faced some tough opponents over the years, but most often the true opponent I’m facing is myself. That’s what happened in that baseball game and chess match.
In Jacob’s case, he had a lot on his mind and some fateful decisions to make. He was about to meet his brother for the first time in 20 years, and the thing he had heard was that Esav wanted to kill him. All his life, Jacob had been running away, be it from his brother Esav after their father’s death, or from Lavan, his deceiving father in law. Here Jacob had a chance to run away yet again, but part of him wanted to stand strong. He had to overcome his own fears to do the right thing and make up with Esav.
In chess, I’ve developed some guidelines on how to keep my own emotions in check. (Get it?) It’s all about staying calm and keep face. It’s also about planning ahead, not underestimating your opponent and never be afraid to put your pawns to work. Jacob actually split his camp in two, moving all the pieces around, and being prepared for whatever Esav decided to do.
These guidelines also make sense in life. For part of my mitzvah project, I am teaching a student with challenges how to play the guitar. Though it’s not as obvious, there is a distinct opponent in any instrument that you play: yourself. Mastering an instrument take a lot of work, and it is very easy to quit. When I took piano, it was hard at first. But glad my mom encouraged me to keep playing. The fact that we had just bought a piano certainly helped J My student is doing really, really well.
And now that I have become Bar Mitzvah, I am reminded of the quote from Pirke Avot, the Wisdom of our Fathers,
איזה הוא גיבור--הכובש את יצרו
Who is a hero? He who defeats himself" (4:1).
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Gabriel Groz on Vayetze
The Way Up is the Way Down
Thank you all for joining my family and me as we celebrate my becoming a Bar Mitzvah. I am honored that you are spending Shabbat with us, and feel so grateful to have so many with whom to share my joy. This Shabbat has a special significance for me, but it also has a special significance for this congregation, as it coincides with the first event marking Temple Beth El's 90th anniversary.
In fact, the name of this synagogue comes straight out of Vayetze, my Torah portion,
which tells the story of Jacob on the run from a home life that is, at best, difficult. Jacob, away from home for the first time, goes to sleep in a place (Makom in Hebrew) somewhere along his journey. God comes to him in a dream, showing him a ladder with its top reaching heaven and its bottom touching earth. Angels are ascending and descending the ladder. Jacob wakes up and says, “God is in this place, and I, I did not know.” He realizes that all ground is holy, even in the desolate location in which he finds himself.
Indeed, in Hebrew, one of the names of God is HaMakom, which simply means “the place.” As God is everywhere, wherever we find ourselves must be “The Place”. Recognizing the Overwhelming Divine Presence, Jacob takes the Stone that he slept on and anoints it with oil, consecrating the Place, which he names Beth El, which in English means “the House of God”.
This Torah portion is so rich with topics for discussion that it's hard to know where to start. The commentaries on Jacob's Ladder alone fill many bookshelves. The image of Jacob's Ladder is striking; angels continuously ascend and descend the ladder, making a circuit. The imagery of the circle recurs in Judaism, for example, with the seder plates we use on Passover and Tubishvat. It is also inherent in the way we practice Judaism: when we finish reading the Torah, we begin all over again.
When I started to think about this imagery, I asked myself why are the angels on Jacob's ladder making the loop? In our culture, we usually associate ascent with important thoughts, with enlightenment, and with progress, while we associate descent with the past, with failure, and with corruption of the mind. I think this is a limited way of looking at things. We know that when you are climbing a mountain, descent from the zenith is just as important as getting up to the top. We also know that when you are scuba diving, you need to come back up to the surface. In both cases, you see the wonders of the world, but you have to make a return trip. Ever upward is just as unhealthy as ever downward.
In Mandarin Chinese, which I am studying and really love, “down” and “up” can have very different meanings from their English counterparts. A common meaning of the word “down” (xia4) is “next.” Because the Chinese language talks about the future optimistically, “down” has a positive connotation. For example, “next year” (ming2nian2) literally translates to “bright year”. The word for “up” (shang4) means “previous”. And one synonym for shang4 is qu1, which is the verb “to go”. The Chinese language thinks of things that have already happened as having gone. For example, the word for “last year” (qu1nian2) literally translates to “the year that went”. If you follow this line of thinking, then “up” means “went” and “down” means “next”. It's kind of like what a great Jewish sage said, “Hello, I must be going.” By the way, that sage was Groucho Marx.
In a way, “Hello, I must be going” is a theme of Vayetze, in that Jacob doesn't expect to remain in Haran for very long; he plans to take refuge there for only a short time, while Esau's temper cools. But Jacob's family dynamics are complicated. His mother's favoring of him sours his relationship with all of his immediate family members, especially his brother; his uncle Laban connives against him; his wife angers her father by stealing his idols; his cousins are jealous of his wealth; and his brother is amassing wealth and arms. His one choice is to flee, and eventually to reestablish himself.
This aspect of Vayetze resonated with me when I began to think about what kind of Mitzvah Project I wanted to work on. As I was looking at various ways that I could make a difference locally, I came upon the organization Kids in Crisis. Kids in Crisis provides 24-hour support to help children and their families resolve conflict. The stories of many of the children served by Kids in Crisis bear similarities to Jacob's story. Both the children at Kids in Crisis and Jacob come from troubled homes; both seek temporary refuge. Like Jacob, the children stay for a time, and with help and hard work gain a better footing in life, and then move on. And in a way, Kids in Crisis could also be thought of as a ladder leading to a better life.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Hammerman on Ethics: Is "Don't Ask, Don't Tell Ethical?"
A. Since you're asking, I'll tell: "Don't Ask Don't Tell" is not ethical. Read why here.
Parsha Packet for Vayetze: The Greatest Soap Ever
THE GREATEST (SOAP OPERA) STORY EVER TOLD
With more tears than a season of “General Hospital,”
More betrayal and deception than a decade of “Dallas,”
More kisses and embracing than “Sex in the City”
And more kids than “The Waltons”
As Jacob Returns to the Old Country
Featuring Jacob, Leah, Rachel and Laban:
And One Family’s Struggle for Power and Wholeness…
As we struggle to answer that eternal question….
HOW COULD JACOB NOT HAVE KNOWN IT WAS LEAH????
Featuring selections from
“Sefer Ha-Aggadah” (Midrash collection of H.N. Bialik)
“How to Read the Bible,” by James Kugel
and “Genesis: The Beginning of Desire,” by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Shorashim Early Childhood Center
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
TBE's 90th - From the Archives
TBE's first bulletin from 1922
For other early bulletins, click here, here and here - you may need to click "view" and "rotate" on your pdf browser to get them rightside up.
Finally, click here for the full program from the Prospect St temple dedication in 1928. You'll find there a complete roster of the temple's membership at that time as well as much other valuable material.
Join us as we celebrate our rich history.
Parsha Packets for Vayetze: Borat and Rock & Roll
One on the cultural influence of the controversial film "Borat"- click here
The other connects the symbolism of rocks - Jacob's pillow, the well with Rachel and Plymouth Rock - with Thanksgiving coming - click here to see why "Rock and Roll is here to Stay!"
Rosh Hodesh Kislev for the Women of the Wall
See these photos from this week's monthly Rosh Hodesh service at the Kotel by the Women of the Wall. See also these latest updates linked to the WOW website:
400 world rabbis ask police to protect Women of the Wall
Women of the Wall Demands Answers as to the Legality of the New Western Wall Regulation
Police Recommend Pressing Charges Against Anat Hoffman while Rabinowitz Tightens his Grip on the Western Wall
In Israel, A Fight to Make the Wall More Inclusive an article on TIME.com.
Monday, November 8, 2010
"We May Have Lost Tom Friedman" Bibi
Once again, Netanyahu meets Biden and the meeting is undermined by the announcement of additional construction. Whatever one's views are on the future of building in the West Bank, or in East Jerusalem, (where I am sure the buildings that are being built will remain in Israeli Jerusalem), you cannot underscore the fact that the Iranian threat is THE existential threat to Israel. Why then would you do something so utterly stupid, like announcing new construction, while the Prime Minister is in the US trying to gain US support for Israel's position on Iran. To get further depressed, read the article by Bradley Burston: Bibi, Tom Friedman, and U. S. Jews divesting from Israel.
It seems the well timed announcement of continued building in the East Jerusalem is the result of an order given by the Minister of the Interior, Eli Yishai of Shas. Yishai ordered his ministry to approve as many building plans in East Jerusalem as possible. With both the Ministry of Housing and the Ministry of the Interior in the hands of Shas, we have an important part of Israel's position in the world being held hostage by a group of people who have no understanding of the world. These officials barely have the qualifications.
On his way to the airport to come to America, Bibi is said to have remarked: We may have lost Thomas Friedman, but I don't think we lost America." He's certainly trying his hardest to! See also this from the Jerusalem Post
Here is what Friedman said to the Israeli people this weekend on Israeli television, according to Bradley Bursten of Ha'aretz:
"You are losing the American people," Friedman warned. "Not to dislike, not to opposition - they are fed up, fed up with the Palestinians, believe me, fed up with the Mideast in general.
"But they're also fed up with Israel. When they see their president working hard to try to tee up an opportunity. All we're asking is just test - go all the way to test whether you have a real partner.
"And you say 'No, first pay me - let Pollard out of jail, have Abu Mazen sing Hatikva in perfect Yiddish, and then we'll think about testing.' It rubs a lot of people the wrong way."
Given a consensus among Israeli analysts, rightly or wrongly, that the man they called the world's most important commentator was speaking not only for himself, but directly for Barack Obama as well, you can bet that Benjamin Netanyahu was listening.
It says everything about the Netanyahu government's attitude toward America, however, that what the prime minister heard was the polar opposite of what Thomas Friedman said.
"Israel doesn't have to worry about me," Friedman had stressed early in the interview. "At the end of the day, Israel will have my support - it had me at hello."
But many Americans, Friedman continued "just are fed up with this conflict, and over time, that will become a national security problem for Israel, given the fact that the United States is your only friend."
Long term, American emotional divestment, Jewish and non, may well prove more of a threat to Israel's future than Ahmedinejad and his bomb factories, or Nasrallah and Mashaal and their rockets.
See also these commentaries more sympathetic to Netanyahu: Settlement Kerfuffle Follows the Script (Tablet) and Never Helpful (Commentary)
Sunday, November 7, 2010
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Ross Levensohn on Vayetze
About six years ago, my family brought home Shayna, our black mini labradoodle. I can remember that moment when she first got out of the car and came into the house. She was energetic, excited and clueless all at the same time, dancing on her tip toes as she sniffed around, whimpering slightly while gazing at everyone around her and at her strange surroundings. Yes, she also left the occasional surprise package on the carpet.
It’s hard to think of her feeling like such a stranger, because since then, she’s become very attached to the house. She no longer needs to mark her territory, because the whole house IS her territory. She’s a perfect example of how a house can become a home.
My portion, vayetze, is all about finding new homes. The word Vayetze means “and he went,” referring to Jacob, who was constantly on the go. The portion begins with Jacob escaping from his brother Esau, heading for a new home – actually an old one for his family, the place where his mother and grandparents had grown up. He learns quite a few things there before returning to Canaan. By the time he returns, he is married to four wives, has 13 kids and lots of sheep. He’s also ready to confront Esau one again.
The lesson of this portion is that you need to leave home in order to really grow up, but also, when you go to new places, like Shayna did, those places can become home as well.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived in the same house all my life. Stamford is definitely home to me. But I also have other homes that have played a major role in my life and have helped me to grow.
I love my camp, Camp Wah-nee, which I’ve been going to for five years. I’ve really grown up quite a bit there, learning how to keep track of my belongings, how to keep my things neat and organized, and making my own bed. Camp also has taught me how to live in close quarters with others and deal with conflict. It’s a place where I’ve done a lot of growing up, both emotionally and physically. Camp definitely has become a second home of sorts.
But I can remember the first day I was there. I didn’t know what was what and who was who. I was kind of like Shayna, without the surprise packages – and everyone around me also felt new and strange.
There are a number of other places that have also become like home to me: there’s Cape Cod, Sharon and Long Island, where my parents’ families are and where I’ve spent many holidays. Then there’s South Beach, our favorite vacation spot, where we’ve had great times with friends. We’ve been going for four years so now we know where the best places are to swim and to shop.
Being Jewish teaches us that every place you go is a little like home. Jews have
always known that home is portable. We can take it with us anywhere, because we’ve been almost everywhere. We’ve had to wander from place to place. But wherever we’ve gone, the Torah has come with us. Some might say that this has been the secret to Jewish survival. All we need is that Torah and our loved ones around us, and any place can become home.
For my mitzvah project, I’ve been collecting for an organization called PAWS, which finds shelter for homeless dog and cats and then helps place them into homes. It’s the perfect way for me to teach the lessons found in my portion and to help provide other families with the joy that Shayna has brought mine.
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Brett Mayer on Toldot
Guess what I’ve just done? I’ve stereotyped Ohio. In fact, there are lots of Jews in Ohio, especially in Cleveland where I was, and I read recently that there are many excellent places to get latkes near Cleveland.
But, believe it or not, to say that all Jews eat latkes is another stereotype. I Googled “Jews who don't like latkes” and got 23,700 results!
These stereotypes are harmless, of course, and there are much more dangerous ones, including some that are harmful to Jews. There are some who still believe that Jews have horns. Some of them live in Ohio.
But some may live in Connecticut too. Any time you make any general statement about an entire group, you are walking on, shall we say, thin ice….
Parents are often guilty of stereotyping their children. We see it in our portion. In fact, stereotyping children was practically invented in our portion.
We have the twins, Jacob and Esau – or, I should say, in birth order, Esau and Jacob. They wrestle in their mother Rebecca’s womb and the struggle continues throughout their lives. Even the Torah stereotypes them, seeing them as opposites. Esau is described as a hunter, a but of a bully, an outdoorsy guy, and not too smart. Jacob, meanwhile, is a scholar who sticks to the tent. We would call him a geek or a nerd.
The Torah, like Rebecca, favors Jacob, but Jacob was a much more complex person, and so was Esau. Jacob is a sneak who deceives people. His name, Ya’akov, actually means “heel,” not only because he came out of Rebecca’s womb clinging to Esau’s heel, but because the word heel, in Hebrew and English, can also mean someone sneaky, who tricks others. But Jacob is also an outdoorsman, like Esau. In next week’s portion, he camps out, sleeping under the stars. He turns out to be strong enough to roll a heavy rock from a well, when he meets Rachel, and he turns out to be a great shepherd too.
Esau, on the other hand, isn’t just Mr. Tough Guy. He is the one who reaches out, in the end, to make peace with Jacob. And when he hears that Jacob has gotten the blessing meant for him, he cries. Esau has a sensitive side.
So if you read the Torah carefully, it is not saying that athletes by definition have to be insensitive apes and that and that people who are good students can’t be athletes.
I think it is possible to be both a good student and an athlete. I know that I have tried to be both.
Maybe the Torah actually is telling us that we shouldn’t stereotype, and it uses Jacob and Esau to tell that story. When the twins wrestle in the womb, maybe it’s not about their being rivals, but about their acting as one whole person. Neither of them really becomes whole again until the meet up many years later, after another wrestling match. Their forgiving embrace is a sign that they at last have become whole again.
To be a whole person means to be full of contradictions. I can be intensely competitive on the ice, while off the ice, I can be just a calm, casual, friendly, good old nice guy. But either way, I’m still me.
Fortunately, this year’s Junior Nationals will be happening in a place that is much harder to stereotype than Ohio.
Salt Lake City.
Once you get beyond all the differences, we’re pretty much the same. For my Mitzvah project, I ran in a five K race, raising money for cancer research. I also collected bottles and cans to donate for cancer research.
Friday, November 5, 2010
Parsha Packet for Toldot: Jewish Continuity, Continued
Parsha Packet: "The Great Toldot Taste Test"
Thursday, November 4, 2010
The Most Dramatic Bar Mitzvah Invitiation Ever!
Midnight on the Oasis...at TBE!
How Did Jews Vote?
But the biggest and perhaps most surprising - even disturbing - revelation is that Israel was virtually a non factor in how Jews voted, and Iran even less so!
See this Jewish Week analysis of various polls of how Jews voted in the contentious Pennsylvania senate race. J-Street's polling, (which on the surface seems self serving, but the Jewish Week reporter found no reason to doubt its veracity) indicated that not only was Israel not a major factor in the Jews' overwhelming support of the liberal Sestak, but the right wing attacks on Sestack for being "bad for Israel," pointing to his J-Street endorsement, were not effective. I've yet to see whether the same held true for Jim Himes, who came under similar attack in our Congressional race - an attack that I believe to have been unfair.
You can read J-Street's polling results for yourselves here. Among their findings:
- Large majorities of Jews (83 percent) want America to play “an active role in
helping the parties to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict."
- Jews think the U.S. should be an impartial broker in order to achieve peace.
- Arguments for a two-state solution are supported by 79 to 82 percent of American
Jews. This language cuts across partisan and denominational divides
- Most Jews seek some form of settlement freeze in the West Bank.
But again, for me, the most shocking result was that for the majority of American Jews, Israel hardly matters - or at least it is dwarfed in comparison to other issues. Go to the power point presentation and scroll down to page 27, and you'll see what I mean. When asked what their TWO top issues were in determining their vote, American Jews overwhelmingly chose the economy and health care, as did most Americans, but then you have to go down seven more issues before Israel appears at all - and Israel was chosen by only 7 percent! Then go down to the very bottom of the list and you'll find Iran - at ZERO percent!
What obsesses Jews on the pages of Jewish periodicals and websites is not evidently filtering down to the "masses." The concern for Israel is not there, even at a time of existential peril. The challenge for us is how to engage the vast majority of American Jews on the question of Israel without resorting to well worn scare tactics. Once again, we see proof that "the establishment" is out of touch.
If this all seems self serving for the J-Streeters, well, it is. But these numbers are so off the charts that it is hard imagine that they are fabricated. In fact, they only confirm what other surveys have been showing, including the important new study released by the Avi Chai foundation, Generation of Change: How Leaders in their 20s and 30s are Reshaping American Jewish Life. This important study brought together the best and brightest demographers, including some with conservative agendas, and it shows clearly that the tilt among American Jews in their 20s, 30s and even older, is away from the "establishment." And this survey was of leaders, those who are most active.
It divides the Jewish world into leaders who are "establishment" and "non establishment," and 2/3 to 3/4 of the leaders in the younger age groups are either "mixed" or "non establishment." Of this group - leaders, mind you - only 23 percent are concerned about threats to Israel's security. What are they concerned about? Global issues and spiritual growth, among other things.
JTS Professor Jack Wertheimer, who wrote the final report, stated (as quoted by JTA) that because they share highly critical views toward key organizations and synagogues, and many work outside traditional communal institutions, these future leaders are leading the Jewish world down a new path. “We have a story of quite dramatic change,” he said.
See initial reactions to the report from Jewschool, JTA, The Jewish Week (on intermarriage) and the Jewish Exponent.
So what have we learned from the elections about American Jews? The Jewry is still out, so to speak, but it appears that the more things change, the more things stay the same AND change. Liberalism is still American Jewry's mantra, despite all the attacks and rightward zeitgeist, but Israel no longer appears to be our rallying cry. What Wertheimer calls the "protective" thread of engagement (Israel, Holocaust, anti-Semitism) has been superseded among the young by what he dubs the progressive (global activism, environmentalism) and expressive (spirituality and cultural expression).
And this year at the polls, they all were trumped by the economy and health care. Except in Bridgeport, where I think they are still voting....
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Reason for Hope (from CAMERA)
A woman from Ramallah has spoken up against the problems in Palestinian society in a forceful way. The interview was translated and excerpted by MEMRI.In an interview to a liberal Arab website, Palestinian reformist Zainab Rashid condemned the manner in which the Palestinian cause has been hijacked by Muslim extremism.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Hanukkah Gifts from Near and Far
Hanukkah is less than a month away! I just checked out our TBE Sisterhood Gift Shop and they are LOADED with great gift items. Make sure to make this your first stop for Hanukkah shopping. You can also shop at our own TBE gift shop online.
If you are looking for an additional source for gifts that is also a mitzvah, a number of our congregants have visited Jerusalem's "Lifeline for the Old" on our TBE Israel trips. Check out their online gift shop to order beautiful craft items for Hanukkah. Yad LaKashish, as it is called in Hebrew, gives more than 300 of Jerusalem's needy elderly and disabled a sense of purpose and self-worth through creative work opportunities, essential support services and a warm community environment. And the crafts are beautiful.
The photo below is of myself and a man whom I met at Yad L'Kashish, who, it turns out, had been my woodworking instructor at Camp Ramah in New England over 40 years ago. It was miraculous to make that connection. I still have the olive wood candlesticks that I made. And, no, they are not for sale in our gift shop!
Below that, see a couple of other photos taken this past summer at Yad LaKashish.
Monday, November 1, 2010
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Charlie Sosnick on Hayye Sarah
Can you remember the first story from the Torah that you ever learned?
When I was assigned this portion and I began to study it, it occurred to me that this story might have been one of the first ones I ever learned.
In case you can’t remember, Abraham was looking for a wife for his son Isaac. He sent his servant Eliezer to his ancestral homeland to find someone. Eliezer went to a well and set up a test – he was looking for someone who would not only offer him water but also provide water for his ten thirsty camels.
Sure enough. the very first person who came along was Rebecca and she did just that. At that moment, Eliezer knew he had found who he was looking for.
There are two elements to this story that have become very important to me. No, it has nothing to do with camels!
But it has a lot to do with water, and with the way that Rebecca went above and beyond in order to provide water to those without it.
Nearly two years, ago, this portion and my bar mitzvah were the last thing on my mind as my family vacationed in Tanzania. But in some ways, it was as if they were all connected.
We went on safari and saw amazing animals and fantastic views, but one sight touched close to home more than any other, and that was the way people in Tanzania use water.
Think of the ways you use water every day. You shower, you flush the toilet, and you nonchalantly turn on the faucet in nearly every room in your house. You leave the faucet on when you brush your teeth or doing the dishes. Of course that never happens with me. I never do the dishes -they’re not really my thing!
Now, imagine waking up at the crack of dawn, walking more than ten miles, filling up your jug with water that we wouldn't touch, let alone drink, then starting back home. Sounds horrible. But for many people across Africa, this is a far-too-real fact of everyday life.
After seeing all this and then hearing about my Torah portion, I knew immediately what my mitzvah project would be. I've chosen one of the world's premier water charities, known as “Charity: Water,” to help me bring clean water to those in need, just like Rebecca. With the money that I am raising on my website, I’ll be helping to provide fresh, clean water, and lots of it, to extremely thirsty people, the Bakaya of Central African Republic.
Water is a problem not just in Africa, but all around the world. As of this month, 136,314,000 people around the world are living under the most severe drought conditions. It is also a concern here in parts of America, like the southwest and Gulf Coast area, where drought conditions exist.
In the stories of Abraham and Isaac, there are constant references to wells. Often there are disputes over who owns them. Water was very precious even back then. A prayer for rain in Israel has been part of our daily prayers for two thousand years. And it is also precious in the Middle East today. In Israel, scientists are building desalination plants to turn sea water into drinking water, and a joint Israeli-Palestinian team is working together to develop clean water solutions. It’s interesting to see how people who have fought so much might be able to come together over water.
So you can see how important water is – and also how important it can be to go above and beyond to help those less fortunate to have access to it. I hope you remember that the next time someone comes up to you with ten thirsty camels.