Friday, October 30, 2015

What Was The Last Big Thing G-d Asked You To Do?

What Was The Last Big Thing G-D Asked You To Do?
Parshas Vayeira

Parshas Vayeira, which means, “He appeared,” opens on a very hot day near Hebron; so blisteringly hot that Rashi describes it as Hashem having taken the sun out of its sheath in order that there would not be any travelers walking by for Avraham to care for as he healed from his circumcision. [Chayenu: Cf. Rashi Tehillim 19:5]

Moreover, we learn from Rashi that because Avraham could not fulfill this aspect of his Divine Service, he was upset; in his mind, his pain was not an impediment to his desire to be a paramount of hospitality. His mission to share with the world the truth of monotheism, that there is only One G-D, gave him such joy that not being able to do so left him feeling discontent. Right here we should ask doesn’t Hashem know what’s best for Avraham and by extension, what is best for us when it comes to all aspects of life? I have no doubt that each and every one of us is going to say, “yes.” But it is Hashem’s response to Avraham’s sadness that I want us to consider: it’s true that no humans wander by because it is as we New Englanders say, “still a scorcher,” but three angels, three spirit beings come near to Avraham’s tent and his and Sarah’s desire to serve others is made possible. What might we learn from this? No doubt each of us takes something personal away from this event, for me, I am encouraged to remember that the purpose for which Hashem brought our Neshama/soul to earth is always under His watchful eye and as we stay the course, He gives us both physical and spiritual chizik/strength, and joy to carry on.

Parshas Vayeira continues on with the story of Lot, the destruction of Sedom and Amorah, the seduction of Lot by his daughters and Avraham and Sarah’s travel into Gerar where their encounter with Avimelech occurs. All of this a treasure trove ready for you to glean but I want to continue with this week’s theme, of the biggest thing Hashem has ever asked you to do. When we look at the life of Avraham we see many “big” things asked of him: leave your father’s house and go somewhere that you don’t really know, then when he’s 99 years old to circumcise himself, and finally when his son Yitzchak, his son of covenant is 37, he hears this, “Please take your son, your only, the one whom you love, Yitzchak, and go to the land of Moriah. Take him up there as a burnt offering…” [22:2] This is the last of the ten tests that Avraham faced. What test are you facing?

The common understanding of this scene is that Hashem asked Avraham to sacrifice his son. Indeed the father and son climb the mountain with Yitzchak carrying the wood and Avraham carrying the fire and a knife. Next, we see that the son allows himself to be bound on the altar, [he had to be willing, after all he is a 37 year old man] and then the uplifted hand of the father holding the knife, “so as to slaughter his son.” [25:10] Before we rejoice because of the heavenly intervention, I just have to ask, “What did Hashem ask Avraham to do?” This is a vital question because the text only says to’ “Take him up there as a burnt offering.” Does G-D ask Avraham to slaughter Yitzchak? Rashi and many other commentators tell us no, only to bring him as a burnt offering. So, what does this mean for us? There is an excellent article on concerning the Laws of the Burnt Offering/Karbanot Olah by Moshe Bogomilsky that is worth the read.

There are many aspects to the Laws of the Karbanot Olah, but for today let’s consider that no part of the burnt offering was given to the Kohanim; the entire offering was burnt on the altar. No one but Hashem received this offering and this is the reality shared between Avraham, Yitzchak, and Hashem. The reward it brought was the doubling and redoubling of the blessing. Today there is no Temple to which we bring our offerings; prayer has become our offering accepted by Hashem at His request. When our tests are bigger than we think we can handle, it seems to me that it is the time to make sure that we dig deeply in to the words of Torah, seek advice from our leaders in case there is something that we are misunderstanding and remember that our prayers are the burnt offerings that we lay upon the altar trusting that Hashem hears each and every word.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Parshas Lech Lecha 5776, October 2015, Avodas Hash-m

Many people focus on Avraham Avinu in this week's parsha thoughts, though last year I discussed how central Sarah Imeinu actually is. Tangentially, we referred to Shem ben Noach's role in the parsha, and it is him whom I want to discuss this year.
Reach out to others. Just realize you must do it for G-d's honor,
not for your own.

While Avraham and Sarah were known to be leading others towards fear of G-d and Noahide laws, it must be remembered that Shem, the son of Noach, was at that time already leading what is referred to as a yeshiva, a home of higher Torah study at this time before the giving of the Torah itself. While the forefathers and mothers are known to have observed the laws of the Torah due to their prophetic vision and inner sensitivity to G-d's laws, this obviously cannot have been the basis of Shem's students' learning. While Shem himself was a tzaddik, his students were simply those who had learned to appreciate the ways go G-d from Avraham and felt they needed further instruction. They were not Jews and there was no suggestion that they would inherit the Torah themselves; they were simply those who were most inspired and possibly most intellectual among those who learned from Avraham.

Shem, in fact, aside from acting as the greatest in-depth teacher of G-d's law in the land, also had inherited the kehuna, the rights of the priestly first born, as the oldest son of Noach. He and his brothers and their wives were the only humans (after the death of their father and mother) who knew exactly what life had been like in the time before the great flood--a time when children were conceived and born within one day, infants were born with the ability to walk and speak, humans had enormous strength, no suffering was known, crops were sown only every 40 years for continuous harvesting, and the climate worldwide was mild (Midrash HaGadol, Midrash Bereishis). No suffering of any kind was known. It was under those conditions that mankind fell away from appreciation of G-d's gifts and took them all for granted. Shem could explain directly how things had changed and how man must appreciate what he does have and the gifts G-d does give, even if they are not as extensive as those before the flood.

Yet Shem lost the rights to the priesthood to Avraham and his descendants (eventually to the Kohanim of the tribe of Levi).  Despite his extensive knowledge, his great appreciation for the gifts bestowed by G-d, and his ability to transmit appreciation of Torah values to his students, he failed to show honor to G-d in front of Avraham. When he and Avram greater each other, each sure the other would be angry (Avram had slain Shem's unrighteous son Kedarlaomer in war; Avram was sure Shem would want revenge for his family while Shem was sure Avram bore a grudge that Shem would have such an unworthy son who had threatened Avram's life). Rather than curse Avram, Shem blessed Avram and G-d, but in that order, placing Avram and his honor first (Midrash Nidarim Lev). For this mistake committed by one who had always held G-d's teachings and primacy in his heart, Shem lost the rights to the priesthood.

So we must always have G-d foremost in our hearts and in our speech as well. Our own honor, that of others around us, are nothing compared to G-d's. We must take care though not to justify our own actions as being sanctified by dedication to G-d's honor though. Only through very extensive and deep Torah study can we come to know what G-d truly wants of each of us. It's simple to take the first steps though; simply follow the laws as you learn them, and primarily those of self-conduct. Behave towards others as though the first words from your mouth will always be a blessing of G-d and of the other person's actions, as Shem should have done and Avram did.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Parshas Noach: Contrasts in Light and Darkness

Contrasts in Light and Darkness

The unpacking of any parsha requires thorough language study as well as commentaries, research into Talmud, Midrash and for many of us, Chassidus. As much as that path will bring both a depth and breadth of understanding and erudition, most of us just don’t study at that level.  If we are not a Talmid Chacham/Torah scholar, how can we hope to deepen our knowledge and love for the “Instruction” of our G-d? Since we read the Torah anew each year, I always hope to find something that I haven’t seen before or make a connection with the text in a new way. This year our journey with Parshas Noach begins with his name, which means rest and tranquility.  Since personal names, names of angels as well as place names are of great significance in the Torah, how do we juxtapose tranquility and rest with the destruction leveled on the earth by the flood? I think that the answer to this question is found toward the conclusion of the parsha and comes in the form of a choice.

“Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations”(6:9) Here in the beginning of our parsha, it would make more sense if Noach’s name had been a word such as Tzaddik or any other appellation that means righteous or righteousness because that is in-line with what Hashem says about him. But rest and tranquility are a complete opposite of the world around him. Noach’s story is full of juxtapositions and choices including those made by his family members and in particular his sons, Shem, Cham and Yefes.

We are only one parsha away from the beginning of the Torah. In Parshas Bereshith darkness and light are created and separated, Gan Eden is created and when Adam and Chava will fall, good and evil are exposed. That theme continues in Parshas Noach and so the Torah tells a similar story, but in a new place and new way; more layers added to the concept of choice.

Amidst the deep darkness and perversion that the world had known since the Fall, there shone a singular light, his name was Noach and Hashem spoke to him, telling him to build something called an ark. Noach must have wondered about this building project called, ARK, but he obediently built one; after all, he had heard Hashem’s voice.   

Can you imagine clearly hearing the voice of the Creator King of the universe, being obedient for so many years in the face of a world that thinks that you have gone mad? It seems to me that this kind of hearing goes beyond the physical ability to apprehend sound and into a supernatural realm where truly only the righteous stand.  I am always awestruck when I ponder how the righteousness of one man, a husband, and father was enough to bring to safety his wife, his sons, and their wives. I believe that there is a lesson that we can glean from this reality. It is clear that a combination of good deeds, obedience to the Word of G-d and covenant are our eternal connection to Hashem no matter in which generation we find ourselves. And even though it is jumping ahead in our text, as with Noach, covenant still holds even if we “mess up.”  Perhaps this is a piece of tranquility and rest that we can all share during these particularly turbulent days.  So, we see darkness and light, righteousness and corruption, a safe haven and an impending disaster and our journey continues.

The animals that must be brought into the ark come of their own volition. We have male and female pairs that will repopulate a cleansed world and here we have a new juxtaposition to talk about, not the gender, but how many pairs of clean versus unclean animals board the ark. In Judaism, there are many aspects to the number seven and that is how many pairs of kosher animals come into the ark. But for our conversation, I just want to note the 7:1 ratio stacks the deck [all puns intended] in favor of purity and cleanness to out weigh impurity and treif/uncleanness when the animals finally leave the ark and set out to live in nature once again. This contrast between clean and unclean animals applies to both the raven and the dove.

There is wonderful aggadic material that you can find concerning the raven in the Talmud, (Sanhedrin 108b) and in (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 23). For today it is enough to acknowledge that the raven is not a kosher bird, but the dove is, moreover the dove is a gentle herbivorous creature while the raven is an aggressive flesh-eating scavenger. If we depart from the food that they eat, then we can use these two birds to ask ourselves a reflective question. How are my middos or character-traits? Which bird am I, what must I refine in my own life?

A raven, a dove, and a rainbow, a new day full of promise between
G-d and people, but is it paradise found? It is not long after leaving the ark that Noach plants a vineyard, becomes intoxicated thereby uncovering his own nakedness and his son Cham, who the Torah here tells us is the progenitor of Kena’ an, falls into depravity, while his sons Shem and Yefes act righteously.

How could this contrast happen so quickly after their experience of the flood? I think the answer lies in the reality that we are human.  We are created with a dual nature: a Yetzer Hara and a Yetzer Tov or a good inclination and a not good inclination. It is up to us, which direction we follow. There is always struggle because we are human but following the ways of Shem and Yefes, lead to the blessings of
G-d, while the ways of Cham lead to a life absent of blessing. Parshas Noach does not end here it continues on with the lineage of the three sons which leads to the story of the Tower of Bavel.

Bavel means confusion. It’s where our English word babble comes from. For me this is the final connection to Noach’s name and the last juxtaposition in this parsha. (The parsha however concludes with our introduction to Avraham Avinu / our father Abraham). Regardless of how we get to Bavel, confusion is the opposite of rest and tranquility. The Torah also called Torat Chayim (The Law of Life) teaches us how to choose life.

Before the flood, lawlessness possessed the land with disastrous results. After the flood, a despicable choice was made by a son and perpetrated upon a father.

If the choices we make lead us in the light of Torah then we will find rest and tranquility for our soul on the other hand if we walk in the darkness of the Yetzer Hara then our soul will not find rest but the agitated state of confusion. May we always remember to make our choices by following the Yetzer Tov, Hashem, and His Torah. Surely, this way of life can be understood to function as an ark of safety in the promises of our merciful, loving and covenant keeping G-d.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Bereishis 5776, October 2015: Trusting in Torah

We all know Adam and Chava were quick to fall from obedience to G-d's word, but midrash tells us that from the beginning of the creation of the tangible, this was the reaction of the created.
Sometimes we see reminders that G-d's creation is in every way perfect
On the first day, G-d created light and darkness in their entirety, as well as time in the linear sense (Rashi). On the second day the creations were the solidification of the Heavens into a stable firmament (Bereishis Rabbah), five groups of angels, and Gehinnom. None of these were distinct individual tangible objects except the angels, and those were inherently designed as tools essentially, to unquestioningly (unless asked) fulfill specific tasks.

On the third day, though, G-d created trees. The trees were intended to be entirely edible from roots to leaves, as well as their fruits. However, the earth feared that if they were too useful in this easy to access way (as opposed to chopping lumber which takes a great deal of work for man), they would be quickly over-used by man, and so the earth produced trees from which only the fruit was edible (Bereishis Rabbah, Tankuni). G-d punished the earth by making only some trees bear edible fruits whereas originally it had been intended that all trees would bear fruit along with edible bark, wood, and so on. While the earth had a concern, it tried to violate the law of Torah and contradict G-d's word.

On the fourth day, G-d created the sun, moon, stars, and zodiac and fixed them in the sky. The moon complained that it was improper for it and the sun to be identical in strength and appreciation; in response, G-d depleted the original light from the moon itself. When the moon showed contrition, G-d granted that the stars should shine alongside it alone, and not the sun regularly, so that the night sky should be appreciated as well as the day time sun-filled sky.

On the fifth day, fish and birds were created. Each took happily to its assigned portion, and so G-d blessed them with special unique blessings; ultimately when man was allowed to hunt and fish, this blessing also allowed them to survive in suitable numbers. None though tried to argue with the blueprint of creation.

Then came man, who rebelled against the rules of G-d, who had given him only one negative precept. The stage had already been set though by the rebellion of other creations which could not bend to the glory of Torah and the inherent perfection of G-d's plan.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

V'Zot haBerachah 5776, October 2015, Inclusion

Devarim 33:4
 תּוֹרָה צִוָּה-לָנוּ, מֹשֶׁה:  מוֹרָשָׁה, קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב

The Torah's last parsha, read on Simchat Torah (also Shemini Atzeret in Israel), is a blessing from Moshe Rabbeinu clearly directed to all of the family of Israel, every man, woman, and child. Everyone was included without exception. Whether they were the greatest tzaddikim, the least, the newborn, the zakein, they were included in Moshe's thoughts and prayers, and were part of his kehila. The Torah was commanded to US, every single one of us, by Moshe. It is an inheritance to the community of Yaakov, every single member of the community of Yaakov.

I am going to depart from my usual source-based discussion this week because this brings great pain to my own life. Today, our communities simply are not that inclusive to so many with disabilities, especially developmental, learning, or invisible disabilities, and it feels to me as though the Torah is telling us in wrapping up all its law that we must include every Jew, with joy and open hearts. Moshe Rabbeinu made no exceptions: we must provide a Jewish inclusive community for everyone, no matter what their ability or disability.
Getting her to her own bat mitzvah
celebration was only a small step

Let me first differentiate between accessibility and inclusion. Having wheelchair ramps, floor level bimahs, clear lines of sight, wide doorways, are all aspects of accessibility, allowing those with disabilities to enter the physical presence of the space they wish to access. They are critical, they require thought, they are not always obvious. But implementing accessibility is not inclusion.

I myself seen a young adult's family informed that they are not welcome at High Holiday services due to the disruption someone felt the youth caused to that other person's davenning (despite the fact that this same youth had been repeatedly asked to attend services to ensure a minyan would be present); a child with a speech impediment informed on Yom Kippur that a school bully had forbidden all other children from playing with that child at all; a small child's family assured that babysitters would take good care to ensure he didn't elope into danger only to have that occur within minutes; a young adult with intellectual and developmental disabilities publicly humiliated by being told that if he wouldn't lead davenning it must be because he had been "poorly educated."  These are just a few incidents I personally have seen or know directly have occurred.

Every one of these four children has a serious medical, developmental,
psychiatric, and/or intellectual disability. You wouldn't pick them out
of a crowd of children as the ones with disabilities, yet they have them.
Did you know that when people drum and pound on furniture during tefillah, it causes actual physical pain to some with sensory integration dysfunction or with synesthesia? That crowded spaces and children running out of control within those spaces can cause severe anxiety in those with many conditions (including intellectual, developmental, psychiatric, and medical disabilities) and can exacerbate necessary attempts to gain control of the environment for some? That there are those who chose not to dance on Simchas Torah for any variety of hidden disability related reasons varying from pain to poor coordination to dizziness and more? That boys with severe learning disabilities may simply not be able to leyn because they are already spending dozens of hours a week just trying to read in English the necessary material for school basics, but may be embarrassed to explain this?

Of course no one set of board members, rabbinic leaders, children's group leaders, or others can know the potential effect of every decision and every moment's actions for those with disabilities around them. That's impossible. What is necessary though is to remember to consider it, particularly if someone seems to have a negative response. The person not dancing, leaving the bais medrash when pounding on the bima begins, no longer attending synagogue at all; the child alone in the corner or running into every stationary object, these are not people rejecting the community. These are people abandoned or even rejected by the community if the community is not aware of the reasons for their behavior and the fact that the behavior is in fact caused by the community itself, for good or bad.

This may sound harsh, and it is. But the treatment I have seen those with disabilities receive from the Jewish community in the last few decades is itself terribly harsh. It is also not at all in keeping with the Torah, and particularly this parsha which is meant to bring the entire Torah into our hearts. All of our hearts. I wish everyone, everyone, a lively and joyful Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.