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Moses and “Moses” – Celebrating Harriet Tubman

April 21, 2016 Leave a comment

They say that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I’m not so sure about that.

This weekend, Jewish families all over the world will sit down at their tables for the Passover Seder. This season celebrates freedom; it acknowledges that somewhere in the depths of our history/mythology we were slaves. And that through forces human and divine, we were made free.

https://745515a37222097b0902-74ef300a2b2b2d9e236c9459912aaf20.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.com/77377beeeb64db9152e1b3ffc12109ae.jpegThe main character of this drama is, of course, Moses. Moses the miracle baby. Moses the Egyptian prince. Moses the freedom fighter. Moses the reticent leader. Moses the prophet.  Moses the philosopher. Moses the rabbi. He plays more roles in Jewish tradition than any other figure. He is the archetype for EVERYTHING.

Which makes it exceedingly curious that as you make your way through the traditional Haggadah – the prayerbook for the Passover Seder – the name of Moses appears not a single time.

Why is Moses absent from the seder? Maybe the framers of the Haggadah wanted to attribute the miracles to God. Maybe they didn’t want to encourage Moses-worship. Maybe they wished to universalize the story, allowing it to speak to oppressed peoples in every time and place. Whatever the reason, there is a sense that Moses’ actions are so extraordinary that they speak for themselves. We don’t even need to mention his name.

Moses is lucky – we know he’s there even when he’s not mentioned. But that’s not usually the meaning of absence. And that is what the US Treasury Department acknowledged this week when it announced that for the first time, a woman will be featured on an American bill. Finally, a woman’s presence on US currency! Finally, an end to this glaring absence of female voices and faces in an important federal institution.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5d/Harriet-Tubman-248x300.jpgAnd appropriately for Passover, the US Treasury department chose none other than Moses. The abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and then committed her life to shepherding other slaves to freedom, was known in the abolitionist movement as “Moses,” because of her commitment to freeing her people. A human rights activist, a suffragist, and a symbol for freedom, her actions – like those of the original Moses – have long outlived her own lifetime.

By placing Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, we acknowledge the central Jewish value that individuals have the power to repair the world. That where there is slavery or oppression or hatred, brave women and men can to change it. It reminds us that that our presence is felt through our actions.

May the name of “Moses” – and her picture on our currency – inspire us to be our best, and to bring freedom and peace to our world.

Chag Pesach Sameach – Happy Passover to all!

More Than Words: A Sermon for D’varim 5775

July 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Here’s a joke:

It was the middle of Shabbat morning services, and the rabbi noticed that old Irv Cohen was asleep in the third row. So he elbowed the Temple President and said, “Cohen is asleep again. Go wake him up!”

The President answered: “That’s not fair.”

So the rabbi replied, “What do you mean? Go wake him up!”

To which the president answered again, “That’s not fair.”

Now the rabbi was frustrated: “This is a synagogue, not a bedroom. Cohen can’t sleep through my sermon. Go wake him up!”

And the president answered simply: “That’s not fair. YOU put him to sleep. YOU wake him up.”


The joke about rabbis seems to be that they talk a little too much. This week’s Torah portion proves that Moses was truly the first rabbi, in that he was capable of talking for extended periods of time.

Here’s what I mean: After 40 years of wandering, our people are now standing, ready to cross over the Jordan river into the Promised Land. But Moses knows something very important. He knows that he is not going with them. As you may remember, Moses was punished by God that he cannot enter the Promised Land. He has the opportunity to stand up on a mountaintop and see the land. But he’s not going to accompany the people there, and he’s not going to be there to help them set up their new society.

So Moses takes it upon himself to give them some advice. Lots of advice. A whole book’s worth of advice, in fact, that we call the book of Deuteronomy. This last book of the Torah will consist of several speeches given by Moses – in which he’ll recount past events, go back over the places they’ve been, and give laws and advice for the people as they set up their new society in the land of Israel.

In Hebrew, we call this book D’varim, which means “Words.” Because it starts by saying, “Eleh had’varim – these are the words that Moses spoke.”

The irony of Moses giving 3 long speeches is that he is not really a public speaker. Back in Exodus, when God first came to Moses to lead the Jewish people, Moses said– Lo ish d’varim anochi – “I am not a man of words.”

But now, our man of few words has become a man of many words.

But there’s another layer here. And for that, we need to know that the word d’varim doesn’t only mean “words.” It also means “deeds” or “actions.”

And while Moses may not have been a man of words, he was most definitely a man of deeds. Here is a leader who devoted his entire life and every bit of his energy to his people. He went to Pharaoh. He parted the red sea. He climbed Sinai and brought back the Torah. He led the people through the Wilderness. And now they all lend him their ears because they know after 40 years that he is the real deal.

Moses is an example for us as Jews because he values D’varim – he values both words and deeds.

As Jews, we are people of words. The the name that was given to us in the medieval Islamic world was Am HaSefer – people of the book. We are people of the book because we find meaning by delving into ancient texts – by reading what our ancestors had to say hundreds and thousands of years ago, and challenging ourselves to find relevance in those texts for our own lives.

But we’re not only people of words. We are also people of actions. The basic unit of Jewish life is not words, and it’s not really beliefs either. It is mitzvot – commandments. The Jewish things that we do define the Jewish lives that we live.

There is a passage in the mishnah, that has made its way into the daily morning service, that begins:

Elu d’varim she’ein lahem shiur – These are the d’varim (the actions or deeds) whose worth cannot be measured. And it goes on to list them:

  • Honouring your father and mother
  • Engaging in acts of compassion
  • Study Torah
  • Welcoming the stranger
  • Visiting the sick
  • Celebrating with the wedding couple
  • Burying the dead
  • And making peace

These are, in many ways, the most basic acts of Jewish communal life – celebration, mourning, study and prayer, and building relationships. When we live our lives in these ways, then we are building strong community, we are there for each other, and we can work deepen our own sense of self worth, and our own connection with God. Those are tasks that never end, which is why the passage refers to them as d’varim she’ein lahem shiur – actions with unlimited worth.

So maybe that’s what Moses means to say to us as he stands on the shore of the Jordan river. That the words we speak, and the ways that we relate to one another and to God really matter. That we have the power to effect goodness in each other’s lives and in the world, by being concerted and thoughtful about how we live our lives.

That’s an extraordinary power and an extraordinary responsibility that Judaism places on us. But it’s also an extraordinary privilege – to be a source of goodness and blessing to those around us.

On this Shabbat, may we recognize that responsibility and may we embrace that privilege.
May we recognize that our d’varim – our words and our actions – really do matter in the world.
Shabbat Shalom.

Building an Inclusive Jewish Community

May 14, 2014 1 comment

Both as a rabbi and as a parent, it is important to me that Judaism be inclusive of people with special needs. Today, more and more, young people who have Autism, Aspergers, Down’s Syndrome, and other similar challenges are being encouraged to participate to their full potential in Jewish life!

Purely by coincidence, I’ve had the privilege twice in the last 2 months to speak on this topic – first at the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and then as part of a local Toronto panel organized by DANI. Both times, the topic was on the traditional Jewish law surrounding inclusion and on how to build the most inclusive Jewish community possible today.

For those who may be interested, here are the videos from those two events:

Thanks for watching!

 

Books, Bullies, Beit Shemesh: A Sermon for Parashat Bo

January 31, 2012 Leave a comment

My two older sons recently did something very strange and surprising: they started reading a lot! The reason is that they found a book – or actually a series of books – that they really like. It’s called Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It’s a fictional, first-person account of something most of us would rather forget: Middle School. And it comes complete with little gems like this one:

Let me just say … I think middle school is the dumbest idea ever invented. You got kids like me who haven’t hit their growth spurt yet mixed in with these gorillas who need to shave twice a day.

Just like being 12, this book is sometimes funny, and sometimes not so funny. And as I’ve been reading it with my kids, it’s become very clear that even at their young age, they and their classmates can relate to a lot of what’s described in the books, including things like peer pressure and bullying. Even at age 6 or 7, kids, know what it’s like to be picked on by someone who is stronger or bigger. It’s just a reality of life for them.

So much so that the Ontario provincial government recently introduced anti-bullying legislation which – among other things – allows schools to expel bullies, and which gives strong support for student anti-racism groups, gender equality groups, and Gay-Straight Alliances. All in an effort to build the support system for kids who may be perceived, or who may perceive themselves, as weak or vulnerable or different.

Of course, being weak and vulnerable is nothing new to our people. It’s pretty much the story of Jewish history. And in this week’s Torah portion, we read about our escape from a bully of Biblical proportions. And that, of course, is Pharaoh. The Torah tells that after Ten plagues and 430 years of oppression, Pharaoh finally said:

“קומו צאו מתוך עמי – Get up and depart from among my people. Take your flocks and your herds, and begone!” (Ex 12:31-32)

And our people did as they were told: they beed gone.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Next week, we’ll read about Pharaoh’s change of heart and the parting of the sea. But the end is the same: our people are leaving Egypt and going out into the desert. And there, in the desert, something very important happens. A group of slaves will become a people. The mixed multitude of vulnerable groups will become Am Yisrael.

Our tradition teaches that there is safety in numbers. It teaches that we need each other, and that we build community based on the things that we have in common. Our vulnerability turns to strength when we find those types of supportive communities.

Some rabbis have objected to the current legislation because of the support for Gay-Straight Alliances. And while I wouldn’t take a position on the legislation from the bima, I do feel I have an obligation as a Rabbi to point out that there is another Jewish take on that issue. Yes, an Orthodox Jew may object to homosexuality on religious grounds. But you can’t use religious grounds to object to people forming a safe and supportive community with others who are like them. That’s exactly what our people did when we fled Egypt. And it’s something that we all need: whether it be a Gay-Straight Alliance, a single-parent support group, or a Temple Youth group, we need to be surrounded by people like us; people who share our beliefs and our struggles. That’s how the vulnerable become less vulnerable.

That’s what Judaism teaches: that all people are created in God’s image, that all people deserve to feel worthwhile and respected. That no person should harass or isolate or harm another because they are different.

And the sad irony of that statement is that, that’s exactly what’s going on right now within one segment of our own people.

Last week, a 27 year old woman in Beit Shemesh was attacked by several Ultra-Orthodox men. According to Haaretz, “They surrounded her car and pelted it with stones… and punctured her tires. One stone struck [her] on the head…”

And this is the latest in a long line of such attacks. All of these incidents lately have surrounded the issue of tzniyut – modesty. These women are being attacked because the men in that particular neighbourhood don’t feel that they are dressed modestly enough, or believe that they are behaving in ways that are at odds with their ultra-Conservative Jewish values. And none of this is new. For years, women riding through Haredi neighbourhoods have been forced to the back of buses. Ink has been thrown at women praying at the Kotel. 2 years ago a woman was assaulted at a bus stop because she has T’fillin marks on arms. And all of this has become more and more public, more and more audacious, as the ultra-Orthodox community grows larger and more radicalized.

And it all came to a head last month in Beit Shemesh when a little girl – a little 8-year-old Orthodox girl, dressed in a long skirt and long sleeves – was spat and called prostitute on by Ultra-Orthodox men – because her path to school happened to take her through their neighbourhood, and because – according to the New York Times, “her modest dress did not adhere exactly to their more rigorous dress code.”

It goes without saying that this is beyond wrong. I’m only preaching to the choir here, but it’s important that our voice be heard, that we stand up and say in no uncertain terms that our Jewish values and our way of life are being twisted into something ugly, hateful, and decidedly un-Jewish. Anyone who would choose to harass and bully women and girls, to attack weaker people, is not practicing Judaism. Those people are much closer to Pharaoh than they are to Moses.

Thankfully, Israeli society is beginning to speak up. In the last month, there have been rallies and protests in Beit Shemesh calling for an end to this madness. There was a women’s flash-mob – you can see it on You Tube – to send the message that women have the right to express themselves. Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke out, saying : “This is a phenomenon that contradicts Jewish tradition and the spirit of the Bible, with one of the most central [ideas] being: Love your neighbour as yourself.” Even an ultra Orthodox rabbi, Yitzchok Adlerstein, wrote that we must “condemn with passion, conviction and without qualification” these acts.

It is time for the Jewish world to speak up about the Pharaohs in our midst – the bullies who believe that it is their God-given right to oppress the weak and vulnerable who are different than they are. It is time for Israel to take a deep look at its political system which gives these people power and money. And it is time for us as Diaspora Jews to make clear that that is what we expect of the Jewish state at this moment in its history.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is right. At the center of the central chapter of the central book of the Torah stand the words “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha – Love your neighbour as yourself.” The Rabbis of the Mishnah debate whether loving God or loving your neighbour is the most important value in Judaism, and they determine that the two must flow from each other. We show our love for God by showing love for our fellow human beings. We show our love for God by standing up for the rights of the weak – in our neighbourhoods, in our kids’ schools, and across the world.

Because we Jewish people have been the “wimpy kid.” We’ve been the oppressed before. And that gives us a special obligation to do what’s right.

Shabbat  Shalom.

Kaddish for Jastrow

January 29, 2012 8 comments

It was about a month ago that our dog Jastrow died. He was 3. He escaped from the yard and got hit by a car. Our kids were devastated. So were we.

Jastrow’s name was the proof of my rabbi-nerdiness. (Only other rabbis realized that he was named for the Marcus Jastrow Dictionary of the Talmud.) But beyond the name, he was never my dog – he belonged squarely to the kids. Jastrow would play with them, sleep in their beds, lick their faces, and sit right on top of them. We called him our therapy dog because he was always good for providing our  son who has Aspergers with the “deep pressure” he needed on rough days! Jastrow was the young, fun dog while April (our 10-year-old lab mix) was the old, boring dog.

So the kids were hit really hard when he died. This was, thankfully, their first real experience with death. (When their great-grandmother died nearly four years ago, they were too young to really be aware of it.) Their reaction was both heartbreaking and fascinating. You could see Kubler-Ross at work as they shuffled wildly between angry shouting, hopeful bargaining, tearful storytelling, and asking the same questions over and over again….  In the end, what they wanted was to “do something” for Jastrow. Maybe we could say a prayer for him, they suggested. Or maybe draw pictures and tell our favourite stories, and find a place in the woods to “visit” him. Without knowing the words Shiva, or Kaddish, or Funeral, our 3, 6, and 7 year old boys were asking instinctively for some ritual to help them through the mourning process.

Even our older dog was mourning. April’s sleeping and eating patterns changed, and she kept trying to run out the front door, apparently in an effort to go find her friend. It was as though she also needed something to happen – some kind of closure to let her move on.

Our need for ritual is deeply ingrained in our psyche. Judaism offers us ceremonies to help mark the emotional moments of our lives – the Brit Milah/Brit Bat, the wedding ceremony, the funeral and mourning rituals. This is part of the particular genius of our way of life – that it is able to provide us with guidance during these universal moments in which we all need it. And if you leaf through the Reform movement’s On the Doorposts of Your House, or search the works of Marcia Falk or the pages of ritualwell.org, you’ll find hundreds of new ceremonies and blessings for moments of life that were never before ritualized: retirement, miscarriage, menopause, sending a child to college, quitting a job, ending a relationship. Some of these are hokey and contrived, but they speak to a need that is very real and very powerful.

I never saw that as clearly as I did while watching my kids mourn their dog. May his memory be a blessing.

Sukkot: Measuring the Years

October 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Sukkot is the strangest holiday we have, and it has the strangest rituals. It’s one thing to sit around the table and eat and sing (like we do on every holiday). It’s quite another thing to build a shack in the back yard and wave around a bunch of plants in all directions.  What’s that all about?!

Of course, what that’s all about is agriculture. A long time ago, our farmer ancestors used to reap their fields during this time of year. The festival of Sukkot was born out of the practice of measuring the yield and giving thanks to God.

Well, I’m not a farmer. (I can’t even keep houseplants alive!) But I do have something that I measure every year on Sukkot, and it has transformed this holiday into the most special time of year for our family.

Four years ago, my wife and I decided to designate one pole of our sukkah as a “measuring stick.” Each year, when we build our sukkah, we make sure that pole ends up in the doorway, and we mark each child’s height on it in permanent marker. That way, every Sukkot they get to see how much they’ve grown in the past year, and we get to celebrate the fact that they got a little taller and a little older.

I know there’s nothing novel about measuring your kids every year. Plenty of parents do it on birthdays, or on New Year’s Day. But for me, the connection with Sukkot is really important. Judaism tells me that on this holiday, I’m supposed to measure and be thankful for the yield of the past year. I think that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Plus, it makes us really look forward to putting up our sukkah!

Chag Sameach!

Information Overload: Is Shabbat the Solution?

July 11, 2010 1 comment

These days, we spend our lives connected to information,  and connected electronically to the world. At any moment of the day, you can find out the answer to almost any question; and at any moment of the day, others can reach you – through email, phone, online social networking, etc.

This kind of access – and this kind of accessibility – raise important religious questions.What are the boundaries between our home lives and our work lives? What kind of time are we devoting to self-growth or to family or to our inner lives if we are always connected to the outside world? If we spend our lives building and conquering (so to speak) the world, then when do we stop to appreciate and be thankful?

That’s why I was so intrigued by Kai Ryssdol’s interview on Marketplace with William Powers, author of “Hamlet’s Blackberry.” (The interview is here. You can read it or listen to it online.) I will start by admitting that I have not read William Powers’ book, though I think I would now like to. I was most intrigued by Powers’ reference to his family’s “Internet Sabbath.”

In my family, we do something we call the “Internet Sabbath,” which has no religous meaning, it’s completely secular. But on Friday night, we unplug the household modem which serves my computer, my wife’s and our 12-year-old son’s, and it’s unplugged every weekend until Monday morning.

Au contraire, Mr. Powers! You may not think that your Internet Sabbath has religious meaning, but you have stumbled upon the very essence of Shabbat. From Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath:

Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self. (p. 13)

The solution of mankind’s most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence of it. (p. 28)

Shabbat is a time to stop trying to master the world and instead to live in the world. Ultimately, that is why we’re not allowed (according to tradition) to light fires or build buildings or cook food on Shabbat: because it is the one day of the week when we do not seek to control the world around us. The benefit of an “Internet Sabbath” is not only that it removes the distractions that might take us away what’s really important, but also that it may help us tame our impulse to be constantly accomplishing and acquiring.

Not that there’s anything wrong with acquiring and accomplishing; it’s just that’s there’s also something to be said for appreciating, and observing, and breathing… and resting.

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