Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Shabbat HaHodesh 5771: Let the hungry come and eat, and not be displaced or dispossessed לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָפֻצוּ עַמִּי, אִישׁ מֵאֲחֻזָּתוֹ.

This week's parashah of Tazria, which discusses the laws of leprosy, is often a time to speak of the dangers of לשון הרע, (lit. evil speech), gossip and slander, and speaking inappropriately about others in front of them and behind their backs. The connection is made by the rabbis through a word play which transforms the word metzora, a leper, to motzi shem ra, one who defames his or her fellow. This is surely an important area in which I and many others have much work to do.
However, I was moved by ענינא דיומא, unfortunate current events in the news, to write about the message of feeding those who are hungry. While it may not be explicit,I see this idea as present between the lines of the special maftir and Haftarah of this Shabbat Hahodesh, the last of four special Shabbatot that lead up to זמן חרותינו the time of our liberation. In the Torah reading for Shabbat Hahodesh, taken from Exodus 12:1-20, God commands Moses and Aaron to instruct the Israelites in the details of the Korban Pesah, the offering which is is to be eaten on the eve of the exodus from Egypt, along with the laws of the first Passover Celebration. Among the details of these instructions are that families should join together if they are too few in number to eat the meat of an entire lamb (v. 4), and that no meat shall be left over until morning (v. 10). In its plain or original meaning, this commandment was probably meant to demonstrate the sacred character of this meat, that it could not be used as leftovers like food from any other meal.

Yet in a more creative reading of the text, these details can also teach the values of being conscious about the food we consume. Eating can be a sacred act, especially if we share it with others, and if we think about what happens to our food. While we no longer offer sacrifices, this does not mean that we should be considerate about what we consume, and ensure that we do not waste, especially when there are so many, even within our own cities who go hungry every day. At the very least, we should think about how lucky we are when we eat delicious meals, whether home-cooked or at a restaurant or cafeteria.

I believe that this message of social responsibility is also hidden within the lines of the special haftarah for Shabbat Hahodesh. Taken from Ezekiel 45:16-46:18, this prophecy is mostly concerned with laying out the guidelines for how sacrifices, including daily offerings, those designate for Shabbat and Festivals, and the Paschal lamb, would be prepared and offered in a future age of redemption. After laying out how the Temple would function, the vision turns to the Nasi, or prince who will lead the people of Israel in this future time. The Nasi is given significant powers, including being able to bequeath possessions to his descendants. However, in the verse which concludes the Haftarah, 46:18, the Nasi is warned against cheating the people out of their possessions:
וְלֹא-יִקַּח הַנָּשִׂיא מִנַּחֲלַת הָעָם, לְהוֹנֹתָם מֵאֲחֻזָּתָם--מֵאֲחֻזָּתוֹ, יַנְחִל אֶת-בָּנָיו: לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָפֻצוּ עַמִּי, אִישׁ מֵאֲחֻזָּתוֹ.
The Nasi may not take from the holdings of the people to cheat them out of what is rightfully theirs in order to give it to his children -- so that My people shall not be scattered from their inheritance.

While I must note that our situation is not exactly the same as in this prophetic vision, there is still a lesson to be learned for leaders and citizens alike from this warning. Without necessarily advocating socialism, we must consider what we are blessed to have and the many surrounding us who lack basic necessities. Perhaps this verse is trying to remind us of the basic right of humans to have food clothing and shelter, which both individuals and legislators can attempt to ensure in a democratic society.

I was inspired to write this message as I perused the New York Times this morning while eating a delicious Meatball Sub and onion rings at JTS meat day. An editorial written by food columnist Mark Bittman with the title "Why We're Fasting" caught my eye. As an observant Jew who fasts six times a year to mark different religious occasions, I was intrigued why someone would be fasting now. Bittman explains that he and many others have been voluntarily abstaining from food since Monday to call attention to Congressional legislation that would cut back food benefits from millions both within the United States and around the world (who are supported through foreign aid). I was taken aback as I enjoyed a delicious fleichig lunch and my neighbors could conceivably be in jeopardy of starving if this legislation were to pass. Additionally, I spent last Thursday Night participating in a 'Midnight Run' along with fellow JTS students, as we loaded up vans with food, hot drinks, blankets, toiletries and clothing and drove around the chilly city streets distributing them to dozens of people who could have starved or frozen without these essential supplies. It was quite eye-opening to internalize first hand that just blocks away from my warm dorm room with its well-stocked kitchen, people did not know from where their next meal or shower would come.

As we mark Shabbat Hahodesh and the approach of Pesah when we mark our freedom and liberation, I hope you will join me in giving thanks for the delicious food we enjoy daily (and especially on Pesah), ensure that as little food as possible goes to waste, and work within our means to make hunger disappear for those in our cities, our country and around the world.

If you are so moved, consider donating to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which supports respected food relief organizations in communities across the United States and Canada.

Shabbat Shalom and בתאוון B'teavon (bon appetit)!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Students of Torah [can] bring peace to the world! תלמידי חכמים מרבים שלום בעולם

-Babylonian Talmud B'rakhot 64a

Just over a week ago, a terrible tragedy occurred when most of the members of the Fogel family, residents of the Itamar settlement in the West Bank, were murdered in their beds late on erev Shabbat. There are many different ways to respond to such events, through theology, theodicy, politics, contemplation, action or an combination of the above. I feel personally compelled to reject the first few options. Although I believe in a present God who can act in the world, I would be very troubled by any attempt to connect these murders to God or human sin. Similarly, I am turned off by those who would use this tragedy as an opportunity to criticize Israel's settlement policy from the right or left, or God forbid, spew hatred against Muslims or Arabs. Rather, a belief in free will, even if possibly coupled with some form of Divine oversight, leads me towards the direction of resolving to work actively towards a brighter future.

I strongly maintain that Jewish tradition, through our sacred texts and the writings of generations of scholars and leaders urges us to respond to tragedy, strife and conflict through the broad concept of tikkun olam, fixing or repairing the world. In the Aleinu prayer, which appears thrice daily in the liturgy, we express the hope לתקן עולם במלכות שדי, to repair the world in the Kingdom of Heaven, which I believe means that we resolve to partner with God to make the world closer to an ideal state of harmony. There are many acts that could be done in this vein to respond positively to the murder of the Fogels, whether giving assistance to their family and community in Itamar, working with other bereaved children and families who have experienced similar losses, or working towards better understanding between different ethnicities or or religions.

My personal contribution was to participate in a siyyum mishnayot, a custom through which individuals join together to collectively learn all 63 tractates of the mishnah in memory of the deceased. In this case, due to the wide awareness of the death of the Fogels, the particular facebook group to which I was invited succeeded in completing the Mishnah three times over. The study of Mishnah is traditionally believed to bring comfort to the souls of the deceased, especially since the letters of משנה when rearranged spell נשמה, meaning soul. But returning to the opening quote which asserts that studying Torah can lead to greater peace, I believe that engaging in the study of Mishnah as a response to death can allow us to internalize the values and lessons within and behind the text. Ultimately, our learning should be applied to to our lives, and lead us to resolve to work even harder to championing justice, kindness, care and civility in the world.

I chose to study massekhet (tractate) Kinim, literally nests, which is the final tractate in Seder Kodashim (Order of Holy Things), the fifth of the six orders of Mishnah. Kinim discusses the laws of the bird offerings given on a variety of occasions when sacrifices were practiced in the mishkan (Tabernacle) and Beit Hamikdash (First and Second Temples). Birds, either pigeons or turtle-doves, were given on a variety of required and voluntary occasions, generally by those who could not afford livestock offerings but had greater means than those who fulfilled their obligations with grain offerings. These offerings were required to be brought in the cases of a woman after childbirth, men or women who had experienced emissions and a Nazirite who had become ritually impure, among others. Birt offerings were always offered in pairs, hence, the term nest. For obligatory nests, one bird was offered as an olah and burned entirely on the altar, while the other was offered as a hata'at, whose blood was dashed on the top of the altar, and the meat of which was eaten by the priests.

The majority of the laws in the three short, yet complex and math-heavy chapters of Kinim deal with the requirements that bird offerings always be given in a pair of the same species, properly designated as olah or hata'at, and assigned to the proper individual. The mishnayot discuss scenarios such as different birds being mixed up or even flying between different nests. For a self-identifying 'humanities person,' the examples in which birds get mixed up between as many as seven different nests, and the rabbis lay out how many must be disqualified in case they were already designated as the improper category of offering. I believe that a fundamental life lesson lies below the intricate details of Kinim, that of proper intentions and evaluating our actions. The emphasis in these laws on placing adequate thought into choosing, setting aside and offering a specific sacrifice can be aplied to our lives in the twenty-first century. Like our ancestors did when they offered bird sacrifices, we should carefully consider and be deliberate in our decisions and actions. We should think before we act, and when appropriate attempt to fulfill sacred charges, better ourselves and assist others through our deeds.

It is common for tractates and especially orders of the Mishnah to conclude with short, inspirational homilies, and this is the case as the discussion of the Temple service and sacrifices which occupied Seder Kodashim come to a close. The second half of Kinim 3:5 contains two distinct messages:

אמר רבי יהושוע, זה הוא שאמרו, כשהוא חי, קולו אחד; וכשהוא מת, קולו שבעה. כיצד קולו שבעה: שתי קרניו, שתי חצוצרות; שני שוקיו, שני חלילין; עורו לתוף, ומעיו לנבלים, ובני מעיו לכינורות. ויש אומרין, אף צמרו לתכלת.
Rabbi Joshua said: When [an animal] is alive it has one voice, but after its death it has seven voices. How is this so? It's two horns become two shofarot, its two shin-bones become two flutes, its skin is stretched out to cover a drum, and different sinews become strings for harps and lyres. Some say , even its wool can be used for the blue-color[ed robe of the High Priest].
I can understand if this teaching might be off-putting to some, especially vegetarians. The message which could be applied from Rabbi Joshua's words, that the animal was more useful in death than in life, is not necessarily one we would like to hear about other living creatures, even for omnivores. But as in many rabbinic teachings, there are also deeper lessons that can be derived from this idea beyond how to maximize the use of slaughtered animals for holy purposes. We should not waste opportunities of any type, whether material or spiritual. Something that looks like waste or leftovers can become the centerpiece of something new and special. We should think creatively, like Rabbi Joshua, and muster all available resources in thinking creatively and outside the box and working together towards positive goals, whether person or communal.

רבי שמעון בן עקשיה אומר, זקני עם הארץ--כל זמן שהן מזקינין--דעתן מיטרפת עליהן, שנאמר "מסיר שפה, לנאמנים; וטעם זקנים, ייקח" (איוב יב,כ); אבל זקני תורה אינן כן--אלא כל זמן שהן מזקינין--דעתן מתיישבת עליהן, שנאמר "בישישים חכמה; ואורך ימים, תבונה" (איוב יב,יב).

Rabbi Shimon Ben Akashya said: As the elders of the nations of the earth age, their minds become confused and rusty, as it is written, "He will take away the speech of their faithful, and will remove the discernment of their elders." (Job 12:20). But this is not the case for the elders who study Torah; Rather their minds become clearer as they age, as it it is written, "In the aged is found wisdom, and in length of days, discernment."
As is often the case, the most literal and contextual reading of this teaching presents a relatively unflattering and demeaning portrayal of non-Jews, one that is understandable in light of the often unkind relations between Jews and their non-Jewish rulers in the rabbinic era. But this text can also be read in a very positive way when focused on the mission assigned to the broad category of Torah scholars. The more we learn, the wiser we get. And since the path of Torah is so varied and multivalent, there is no single threshold to which one must hold themselves as they walk through it. But we should be cautious to apply the lessons of Torah with care and respect, and an eye towards personal and communal growth, so our minds become clearer as we increase our learning and apply the Torah of our teachers blessed with the wisdom which comes with length of days.

Then, we can be תלמידי חכמים, students of the sages who increase peace in the world, if we apply the lessons of Torah and our tradition with intention and lovingkindness. And through our learning and the positive action which arises from it, may the memories of Udi, Ruth, Elad, Yoav and Hadas Fogel be for a blessing.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Vayikra 5771: Telling the Story, Recounting Our Lives, Connecting to God

D’var Torah for Parashat Vayikra – Congregation Ramath Orah, New York, NY

March 11, 2011/5 Adar II 5771

This Shabbat, we begin reading Sefer Vayikra with its focus on laws of purity and holiness. Many, such as our the contents of our entire Parsha are concerned with the sacrifices offered in the mishkan and later Beit Hamikdash, This may seem a strange time to talk about the topic of stories, yet it is perhaps more appropriate than ever to discuss storytelling in the context of Vayikra. This week’s haftarah, taken from Isaiah 43 begins עַם-זוּ יָצַרְתִּי לִי, תְּהִלָּתִי יְסַפֵּרוּ. – The people which I formed that they may tell of my praise[1]. The prophet comforts the people by telling them that they have a unique mission in the world. God has chosen them to tell His praises publicly. Just a few verses later, the words of the Haftarah demonstrate how speaking about God can enhance and strengthen our relationship with Him and even better ourselves: הַזְכִּירֵנִי, נִשָּׁפְטָה יָחַד; סַפֵּר אַתָּה, לְמַעַן תִּצְדָּק. Recall Me, we shall act justly together – tell the story so you shall be justified[2]. Even the act of telling God’s praises can be a catalyst towards beginning a relationship with God, and through that, become better individuals.

The fulfillment of Isaiah’s mandate has taken many forms over the years as the Jewish people connected to God through sacrifice, prayer, poetry, study of halakhah and eventually, research into the Jewish past in order to better understand the present and future of the Jewish people. One such manifestation of telling God’s praise through the study of Judaism is the Wissenschaft Des Judentums or Science of Judaism movement. Wissenschaft began in the nineteenth century in Germany, as scholars began to critically study different aspects of Judaism including Tanakh, Talmud, History and Literature, in order to better understand the Jewish past and the mission of the Jewish people for the present and future. As historian Jonathan Sarna said, “We’re all heirs to the legacy of Wissenchaft.”[3] The contributions of Wissenschaft spurred much of the growth in Jewish studies today in both North America and Israel. Yet many of the scholars and their work in telling the stories of the Jewish people in Germany and Eastern Europe were sadly lost or displaced in the tragedy of the Shoah.

Wissenschaft became particularly relevant this week as a New York Times article on Wednesday joyously proclaimed that approximately 1500 volumes of German-Jewish scholarship which went missing from the University of Frankfurt library during the Holocaust were found within the Leo Baeck Institute in Manhattan. This discovery immediately brought to mind the words and message of our haftarah. While these volumes may not be readily accessible to the masses, I hope and pray that their rediscovery will help scholars to better study and articulate the Jewish past and thus God’s people may articulate His praises.

Returning to our parsha, I believe when we dig beneath the details of how the sacrifices were offered, we can come to appreciate how they represented a comprehensive system of acknowledging different moments in life by giving of ourselves to God. Joyous celebrations and occasions for thanksgiving, along with time when people made mistakes and committed sins, whether bein adam lamakom, between humans and God, or bein adam l’haveiro, between one and his or her fellow. Some of these sacrifices, like the olah, a voluntary animal offering, or minhah, a grain offering which begin Parashat Vayikra, were given out of the donor’s free will in order to mark a certain milestone or express certain feelings towards God. The hata’at and asham offerings, also found in our parasha, were given to atone for accidental and premeditated sins by individuals, leaders or the entire community. The giving of these sacrifices came together to mark pivotal moments in the lives of our ancestors and thus helped tell the stories of their lives. If we can go beyond (but not fail to appreciate) the intricate, exact and detailed manner in which sacrifices were given, we can understand the dedication exhibited by those who offered sacrifices, materially expressing their prayers, hopes and regrets, and dreams to God. In essence they were fulfilling the prophet’s dictums of תְּהִלָּתִי יְסַפֵּרוּ and הֵזְכִּירֵנִי, נִשָּׁפְטָה יָחַד; by actively acknowledging God’s role in their lives and joining together, solidifying that relationship and hopefully acting in a manner befitting being both בצלם אלקים, created in God’s image, and עם זו, ‘this’ people which God has chosen. May we especially have this charge in mind as we attempt to do God’s work in helping our fellow humans and responding to the tragic earthquake and Tsunami in Japan and the Pacific.

Although we no longer physically offer sacrifices, we can nevertheless aspire to put the same kavannah, intention and passion into our fulfillment of תְּהִלָּתִי יְסַפֵּרוּ, sharing the story of God’s praises, which can be done in so many ways whether through prayer, study and proud observance, and the dedicated research of Wissenschaft, some newly re-discovered, in probing the depths of our past and tradition to enlighten the future. And by doing our part in contributing adding to the story of God and the Jewish people, may we merit the promise which concludes our Haftarah:

מָחִיתִי כָעָב פְּשָׁעֶיךָ, וְכֶעָנָן חַטֹּאותֶיךָ; שׁוּבָה אֵלַי, כִּי גְאַלְתִּיךָ.

כג רָנּוּ שָׁמַיִם כִּי-עָשָׂה ה', הָרִיעוּ תַּחְתִּיּוֹת אָרֶץ, פִּצְחוּ הָרִים רִנָּה, יַעַר וְכָל-עֵץ בּוֹ: כִּי-גָאַל ה' יַעֲקֹב, וּבְיִשְׂרָאֵל יִתְפָּאָר.

I have erased your sin like a mist dissipates and like a cloud your iniquities, return to Me for I have redeemed you. Let the skies sing out for God has made them, the depths of the earth shall shout, the mountains will cry in joy, along with every tree in the forest – For God has redeemed Jacob, and through Israel He will be glorified.[4]

[1] Isaiah 43:21

[2] Isaiah 43:26


[4] Isaiah 44:22-23

Thursday, March 10, 2011

כל זה יבוא מחר אם לא היום ואם עוד לא מחר אז מחרתיים - All this will come tomorrow if not today, and if not tomorrow, then the next day!

-Naomi Shemer

Today we stand at a crossroads for the future of Conservative Judaism as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) released a draft of a strategic plan* to re-envision their organization. Some of the ideas and direction of the draft led many of us to question the lack of emphasis and cuts directed towards on what I believe are the most critical institutions of the Conservative Movement, namely college campus programming and the Conservative Yeshiva and Fuchsberg Center for conservative Judaism in the heart of Jerusalem. I and others were moved to respond a present our vision for the future, first by commenting on a blog (mine is the 6th down). Later, committed Conservative Jewish leaders on campus, including some of my closest friends, founded the Mahar Coalition in order to give a voice to students to ensure the continuity of Conservative programming on college campuses and a place for our generation in the conversation.

"They may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one..."- 'Imagine,' The Beatles

Rabbi Menachem Creditor invited us to share our visions in a special ShefaJournal. I hope that you will read my article on p. 25 and, those of the many other committed writers with which I am proud to share the journal. (Please note that the view in my article are my own and not necessarily those of the Mahar Coalition).

*The original draft of the USCJ plan, released on February 3, can be read here
The revised version released on March 10, 2011 can be read here. The changes made in section 4 are particularly noteworthy, as is the inclusion of Toronto in section 4.1 after its absence in the first draft.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Giving With Passion, Creating Community

D’var Torah Delivered at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel, Yavneh Shabbat Services

March 4, 2011

28 Adar I 5771

מַיִם רַבִּים לֹא יוּכְלוּ לְכַבּוֹת אֶת הָאַהֲבָה וּנְהָרוֹת לֹא יִשְׁטְפוּהָ (שיר השירים 8:6)

Great waters cannot put out love, or passion, and rivers cannot wash it away

When I came across this verse, I immediately thought of my time over nearly the past four years as an active member of the Columbia and Barnard Jewish community. When taken as a metaphorically, I feel that this verse truly reflects the experience of being a committed Jew on campus. Each of us is inundated by great waters - seemingly endless amounts of classes, papers and extracurricular along with other temptations, both more and less beneficial. Yet we have all in our own way held onto our great love and passion for Judaism –whether running to and from minyan[1] in between classes, attending or giving shiurim[2] or any number of ways that we contribute to our proudly peer-run community.

Coming into Hillel and Yavneh, I was inspired by some extremely, overly passionate leaders who seemed to devote every moment of their time to planning events, chesed[3] and minyan times. A certain one of them managed to run the entire Hillel while terrorizing chemistry students. I was inspired by those devoted leaders who gave so freely of their time, and always have wished to fulfill the high standards which they had set on how to give and lead.

R’ Yehuda Aryeh Leib of Ger[4], better known as the Sefat Emet (or the sfas emes) used the above verse as a jumping off point for one of his messages, which seems to speak directly to us here at Columbia and Barnard, as well as to three occasions which we mark this Shabbat – Parshat P’kudei, in which we complete the book of Shemot and the construction of the Mishkan; Shabbat Shekalim, the first of the Arba Parshiyot[5]; and Rosh Hodesh Adar II (the real adar!), which begins at the end of Shabbat.

Going back to the beautiful words of Shir Hashirim about love or devotion being stronger than rushing waters, the Sefat Emet explains this verse in comparison with the building of the mishkan. After the sin of the golden calf, it was as if Israel had been lost in a rush of waters, of sinfulness and straying. Yet even this very sad state, the love expressed by Israel through נדיבות, willingly and voluntarily giving of themselves was able to overcome the sin which they had committed through not trusting God and creating an image. While some might make light of the repetitive and less exciting nature of these parshiyot – I’ll even admit I was a bit disappointed when reading my Torah Temimah[6] commentary last Shabbat, which had two whole pages without any explanations – we should keep in mind the underlying beauty in the way which B’nei Yisrael gave willingly, and even more that they were asked.

In the very same comment, the Sefat Emet also provides a beautiful explanation connecting Parashat Shekalim, in which we read of the half-shekel which every male adult Israelite was obligated to give for the mishkan, and later the Beit Hamikdash each year. He writes,

שפת אמת שמות פרשת שקלים

משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה. הוא שמחת הנדבה שהביאו בנ"י בכל אדר השקלים. ואיתא מצות שקבלו עליהם בשמחה עדיין עושין כו'

When Adar enters, our joy is increased – this is the joy of giving shekalim willingly which happened each Adar…and they continue to uphold those mitzvot which they accepted upon themselves with gladness.

Even though we no longer bring shekalim to the Temple, this theme of giving still pervades the month of Adar for us today as we give mishloach manot[7] on Purim and even more importantly, matanot l’evyonim[8] to those who are less fortunate. In a beautiful connection, these acts which connect us to our friends and those in need were willingly accepted by the Jews of Persia after their deliverance from destruction, as it is written in Megillat (the scroll of Esther), קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלוּ , הַיְּהוּדִים, the Jews accepted and performed these acts for their selves and their descendants (9:27) Even where we are commanded to give, the commandment can be performed at a much higher level when done with joy.

This idea brings us back to the Hillel and Yavneh communities and provides messages both for those of us who are sadly moving on and others who will pick up the mantle. To the underclassmen, I have complete faith that you will not let those many waters overcome your dedication to contributing though attending, planning programs and all types of events and keeping the warm special character of this place, most importantly achieved through chesed and welcoming all those who enter. And on the same note, I know that I and the other seniors will take the passion and dedication which we saw here at Yavneh and Hillel and place it into whichever communities we will enter next year in the future. But for all of us, may we never let the mighty waters overcome our passion, joy and dedication Judaism and community.

Shabbat Shalom and Adar Sheni Sameah!

[1] Daily services

[2] Classes on Jewish texts or other topics

[3] Programs of community service and assisting those in need

[4] 19th Century Polish Hassidic leader

[5] Four additional Maftir Torah readings read in anticipation of the holidays of Purim and Pesah

[6] Commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, late nineteenth century Lithuania, which connects verses from the Torah with their citations in rabbinic literature.

[7] The commandment to give packages of food (minimally, two types of food to one friend) on Purim.

[8] The commandment to give to at least two needy individuals on Purim.