Friday, May 11, 2018

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai

Shabbat Shalom! Together we count the Omer.

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech Ha'Olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu al sefirat ha'omer.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with commandments and commanded us in the counting of the Omer.

Hayom sh'nayim v'arba'im yom, sheheim shisha shavuot la'Omer.

Today is the 42nd day of the Omer. The mystical realm of this day is Malchut sheb'yesod, or the Majesty of Commitment. The Biblical woman associated with this day of the Omer is Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah. She stands up for herself against her father-in-law when he wrongfully accuses her of something. As a result, she merits to be the mother of Peretz, the eventual ancestor to King David (as we will see soon in the lineage at the end of the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot). A simple poem by Kohenet Annie Matan for today's Omer count says, "Malchut sheb'yesod - Majesty of Commitment - Where the seed comes home (And creates the whole world)."


This week's Torah portion is Parashat Behar-Bechukotai, a double portion. The two halves have some differences, but they are both agriculturally focused. Parashat Behar focuses on the rules of sustainable farming and giving your land and workers some rests, whereas Parashat Bechukotai lets the Israelites know that the success of their farming and families will be dependent on them following all the rules. By taking good care of your families, your land and farms, and perhaps today we would also say your office or classroom environments, by being mindful of the rules and acting in ways that look out for others as well as yourself, you can find success in this world. It takes commitment to create this success, though. Commitment to the people you love to cultivate healthy relationships and successful families. Commitment to your gardens and farms to cultivate sustainable agriculture. Commitment to your passions and work ethic to cultivate good grades at school and a strong modern career. Commitment to Judaism to cultivate strong connections to God and community. Through this commitment, and perhaps with the help of Divine reward, we plant the seeds that create the world.

May we commit ourselves to these acts of cultivation and create for ourselves a reputation for steadfast honesty and integrity, like Tamar who acted with righteousness and stood her ground when she was in the right, and may we be reward with success, honor, and legacy as she was. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Parashat Emor: Grandparents


            Shabbat Shalom! Shabbat Shalom! Together we count the omer.

BA-RUCH A-TAH ADO-NAI E-LO-HE-NU ME-LECH HA-OLAM ASHER KID-E-SHA-NU BE-MITZ-VO-TAV VETZI-VA-NU AL SEFI-RAT HA-OMER.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with commandments, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer.

Hayom chamishah ush’loshim yom, sheheim chamisha shavuot la’omer.

Today is the 35th day of the Omer. The mystical realm of this day is Malchut sheb’hod, which is majesty within glory or the nobility of humility. The Biblical woman Rabbi Jill Hammer associates with this day is Achsah, the daughter of Caleb. Caleb is one of the 12 spies that Moses sends to scout the Promised Land, and he and Joshua are the only two to come back ready to conquer the land. Because of this, they become leaders of the conquest. While Joshua is the commander-in-chief, Caleb remains pretty important and in a position to divvy up land at his discretion, within the confines of the tribes God assigns to specifics large territories of the Promised Land. So when he marries off his daughter Achsah and she asks for a dowry of land with plenty of water, he is able to accommodate her and her new husband with property on the wellsprings of the Judean Hills. A midrash tells us that Caleb was Miriam’s husband, and Achsah her daughter. When she asks for water resources, she is really asking to security to be able to pass down to her own children her mother’s legacy of providing water to her people. It is important for Achsah’s children to know about their grandmother and have this connection to her, even though she has passed away in the desert before the land conquest. Achsah prioritizes her lineage and legacy over all other concerns and shows us a great humble nobility in her dowry request.
            This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Emor. Many laws are given in this portion, including the basic commandments to observe Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, but many are specific to the Kohanim. One such kohein-specific law is to stay away from dead bodies and cemeteries. The only exceptions the Torah names are for the parent, sibling, or child of the Kohein. My second graders at Gesher asked this week, “Why not grandparents?” I answered what I usually do, that grandparents are generally excluded from traditional laws around mourning for immediate family members because when these laws were written, people didn’t live as long so grandchildren didn’t have as much time to form a strong bond they know to grieve over by the time a grandparent passes away. But as I’ve thought more about it this week, I’m not sure that’s right. People also had children younger, so it seems that grandchildren and grandparents would have some time together even with lower life expectancies.
So, I decided to look more into it. There doesn’t seem to be a satisfying halakhic reason that grandparents are not included in the list of immediate family members in this week’s Torah portion or in the rules around traditional shiva practices. However, there is precedent to believe that indeed, the bonds between grandchildren and grandparents have been cherished and valued throughout Jewish history. On the topic of mourning, there is a brief story in the Talmud, Moed Katan 20b, of a man named Amemar who rent his garments and sat shiva for his grandson. The story is used as reasoning for the halakha that mourners must stand when performing kriyah, so the element of grandfather-grandson relationship is not dwealt upon. It is significant though, if we as Reform Jews look at the Talmud as a source of all traditions of the past and remember to look there when the time comes for reconfiguring some tradition of the present.
Further, another section of the Talmud, Kiddushin 30a, tells us that a grandparent has as much duty to teach Judaism to their grandchildren as do parents to children. The rabbis base this on a quote from Deuteronomy, not far from our V’Ahavta verses, that says “You shall teach these words to your children and to your children’s children.” The Talmud teaches, “The children of our children, we consider as our children,” and the halakha around that is codified by both the Mishneh Torah and the Shulchan Aruch. From this teaching, we have derived an understanding in some Jewish circles that a marker of successful Jewish parenting is having a Jewish grandchild.
Of course, the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren is different that between parents and children, but not any less important and valuable. We carry on our grandparents’ legacies and learn so much from them. Although she never lived there herself, my grandmother was a connection to an old world that was destroyed and I longed to know more about. I loved when she would tell me the stories of her own parents and their escape from Vilnius, how they spoke so many languages and she regretted how much Yiddish she lost. When I took a January Term Yiddish class my last semester in undergrad, I would call her every day after class to tell her what we learned that day. Sometimes it would jog her memories, other times she would say she didn’t remember anything from that vocab list, and other times she would correct my pronunciation. When I visited Vilnius the following fall, I thought of my grandmother at every turn, the beautiful sights she would appreciate, the friendly people she would enjoy socializing with, the pathetic excuses for memorials to our people she would mourn over. She was not one for travel, and I know she had a lot of vicarious travel anxiety for me while I was there, but I know when I came back she was so happy I could bring her pictures and souvenirs of the place her parents came from. Throughout the next year, I had dinner with her every Wednesday night and learned more about her life, her childhood, and her years with my grandfather, who died before I was born, than I had ever known. When I moved to NYC for rabbinical school, it was harder to see her as much, but I would call her most Saturdays on my walk home from shul. A half an hour was about as long as she could talk before she tired out, and my shul was a mile from my house, so it was perfect for an ambling walk conversation. When she died, the walk home became so lonely. I started calling friends and using that time to catch up with others who lived far away, but it wasn’t quite the same. She wasn’t a shul goer herself, and I don’t think she ever quite understood my drive to be a rabbi, but she was a proud Jew and a proud grandmother, and if she had lived to see me ordained, I think Ner Shalom would have one more regular viewer on our livestream.
Grandchildren, call your grandparents this Shabbat. Grandparents, call your grandchildren this Shabbat, if they are old enough to come to the phone. If not, maybe FaceTime or Skype your children so you can see your grandbabies and they can see you. The time shared between grandparents and grandchildren is invaluable. May we cherish the moments we have in these relationships, and pass on the legacies we inherit from them. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.  

Friday, April 27, 2018

Kedoshim - Mental Health Awareness


Shabbat Shalom. Tonight we count the 28th day, that is four weeks, of the Omer. The mystical realm of this day of the Omer is Malkhut sh’b’Netzach, or Majesty in Endurance. The Omer Calendar for Biblical Women attributes this day to Ritzpeh, a concubine of King Saul whose sons are killed off by King David in the transition of power. They are impaled, and Ritzpeh stays with their bodies day and night, refusing to allow birds of prey to land on them and further their destruction and humiliation. When David hears about this, he has the bodies removed from their posts and buried properly in Saul’s ancestral tomb. Ritzpeh embodies the strength of spirit, the grace and majesty on endurance, of one who refuses to be treated as less than human, overcoming great odds and forcing people in power to recognize her suffering.
 
Earlier this week, I wrote a d'var Torah about the ethical business laws given in this week's parasha and the fact that tomorrow is Clara Lemlich's birthday (a leader in the early Labor Movement) and Tuesday is May Day/International Worker's Day. The summary is, the Torah gives us laws to work fairly by, and it seems they inspired the many Jewish women you can thank for having a weekend. You can find the rest of it on the previous post on this blog.  

But some other things have happened in my orbit this week that cause me to turn back to a teaching I hold near and dear to my heart. This week's Torah portion, Parashat Acherei-Kedoshim gives us the oft-quoted, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Ten verses later, it tells us, "You shall not make marks in your flesh." A very difficult piece of Torah for some of us is to recognize that in order to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must learn to love ourselves. It is possible to learn to do this through our love for others. To think of those who would do anything to protect us from harm, who would defend us from others, can be a strong reminder to not inflict self-harm and to hear their voices in our heads as they might say to a third party to leave their friend/sibling/child/etc. alone. While many may struggle with self-harm, maladaptive coping mechanisms, or may not have really anything to help shield them from themselves, those same people would still never dream of harming someone else. 

I don’t know of any other rabbis with this commentary, but to me it seems clear that if we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must treat ourselves as we would our neighbors and not inflict harm on ourselves we would not do to others. This is of course easier said than done, as the urge to self-harm is already not a healthy one for so many other reasons and is compulsive and complicated and deeply ingrained. Overcoming the depths of depression and learning to manage mental illness in healthy ways takes so much more than two verses of Torah. It is a lot of just gritting teeth and waiting for the therapy and the meds to kick in, it takes waiting for the initial hurt that catalyzed the episode to fade, it takes so much that is out of anyone’s control. 

But gritting teeth and gripping tightly this Torah teaching, and allowing time for the interventions to work, can bring on such freedom and knowledge of strength. Please know, it is so worth pushing through and holding on to see the next day. Getting out of rock bottom means you can do literally anything, because you already beat your own brain, and you will overcome each new episode after that with increasing strength. I know this piece of Torah can't save everyone who struggles with self-harm or suicidal ideation. But I know how important it has been to me in the past I hope by spreading it, we can all inspire one more faithful person in pain to stay with us at least a little longer. When we are honest about these difficult topics, we can share Ritzpeh’s grace and majesty of endurance, and we create space for healthy processing of suffering. 

May these verses inspire those in their depths to share with themselves the love and restraint they would share with others, and may all with a cloudy outlook look forward to the day the clouds part and they can feel the sun on their faces again, and when that happens, I know that they will see how amazing and strong and whole they are for overcoming this episode, and every hard moment to come.


Parashat Kedoshim - Labor Rights


Shabbat Shalom! Together we count the omer, the blessing for which can be found on page 570.

BA-RUCH A-TAH ADO-NAI E-LO-HE-NU ME-LECH HA-OLAM ASHER KID-E-SHA-NU BE-MITZ-VO-TAV VETZI-VA-NU AL SEFI-RAT HA-OMER.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with commandments, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer.

Hayom shmonah v’esrim yim, sheheim arba’ah shavuot la’omer.
Today is the 28th day, that is four weeks, of the Omer. The mystical realm of this day of the Omer is Malkhut sh’b’Netzach, or Majesty in Endurance. The Omer Calendar for Biblical Women attributes this day to Ritzpeh, a concubine of King Saul whose sons are killed off by King David in the transition of power. They are impaled, and Ritzpeh stays with their bodies day and night, refusing to allow birds of prey to land on them and further their destruction and humiliation. When David hears about this, he has the bodies removed from their posts and buried properly in Saul’s ancestral tomb. Ritzpeh embodies the strength of spirit, the grace and majesty on endurance, of one who refuses to be treated as less than human, overcoming great odds and forcing people in power to recognize her suffering.

This week we have a double Torah portion, Parashat Acherei Mot and Kedoshim. It is a full portion, with many rules dealing with both ritual matters and ethical matters. Kedoshim especially was considered by many ancient rabbis to be the essence of the whole Torah, as it repeats the 10 Commandments and gives us the commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Among the many pithy verses that fall under this category of ethical commandments in this parasha, there are a few that point to honesty in business. Leviticus 19:13 says, “You shall not oppress your fellow. You shall not rob. The hired worker's wage shall not remain with you overnight until morning,” and the Sifrei Midrash on the Levitical laws clarifies that the reason “You shall not oppress your fellow,” and “You shall not rob” and put in the same verse as “the wages should not remain with you overnight,” is to let us know that an employer who withholds his workers’ wages oppresses and robs his worker.

Just a few verses later we read as well, “You shall not commit a perversion of justice with measures, weights, or liquid measures. You shall have true scales, true weights, a true ephah, and a true hin. I am the Lord, your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:35-36). There is a volume of the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century definitive code of Halakha, devoted almost entirely to the explanation and codification of Jewish labor laws based on these verses from Parashat Kedoshim

This Shabbat would be the birthday of Clara Lemlich, a Jewish woman who led the Uprising of the 20,000, a general strike of NYC’s garment workers a full year before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire brought massive attention to the horrors of workplace abuse of the time. Without the help of today’s means of mass communication, without the help of the spotlight that the unfortunate fire would eventually cast on their working conditions, Clara was able to encourage tens of the thousands of workers to walk out on strike at a coordinated time on two days’ notice. Her efforts, and others like her, are largely to thank for our modern day labor rights - sensible hours, safe working conditions, bathroom breaks, freedom from harassment, and more. Although it would be some time before regulations reached the fully fleshed out versions we have today, by the end of the 2 month strike, Clara had earned the promises of her bosses that the workers would see improved hours and wages, and safer working conditions. Jewish women upheld the values taught in this week’s parasha and lived with the majesty of endurance shown by Ritzpeh. They stood up against kings of industry to ensure that their people - fellow Jews, fellow women, fellow immigrants, and fellow working class - and all their descendents would not be treated as subhuman as they were.

Let us carry on the Jewish values of this parasha and live up to the legacy of Ritzpeh and Clara. Let us conduct ourselves fairly and honestly in business, and demand that our bosses, our local businesses, and other Jewish-run businesses which represent our community to their workers do the same. Call out injustice and illegal labor practices when you see them, and stand by workers of all kinds. This is a Jewish legacy and a value from the Torah. On Tuesday, it will be May Day, International Workers’ Day, often a day for strikes and recognition for the labor movements that have fought to give us so much freedom in this country. If you go to work on Monday, and you work a decent 8 hours, with a lunch break, think about those who have fought for you to have those regulations, and those who are still fighting for a living wage. Be grateful for what a work week in this country looks like now, and let that gratitude open your eyes to the ways in which labor practices could still be better for a lot of companies and workers, especially those in manual labor positions. And may we have the majesty of endurance to ever further the efforts that came before us to truly make this world a continuously better place. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.