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High Holiday D'var Torah in time for the election!

Here is one from the beginning of school for my Jewish Traditions class, but as it is election appropriate I will share! 

As the days of awe or Jewish high holidays approach I am struck by the idea of communal responsibility. As jews we are accustomed to the idea that we each have the power to change our own fate by partaking in mitzvot, or good deeds. During the high holidays we are judged for the good deeds that we have done, and repent for the times when we have sinned. We undergo personal teshuvah or return by asking for forgiveness in our lives, we apologize to our loved ones, and we reflect on ways we have transgressed promising to renew our committment to torah and righteousness. We are given the opporunity to pray for mercy and inscription in the book of life. But what would it look like if the high holidays were about communal forgiveness and responsibility?

In reading Eliyahu Kitov's "The Book of Our Heritage" he speaks not only of the individual but additionally of the communal. He writes, "Each person has merits and transgressions. If one's merits exceed his transgressions-- he is a tzadik; if one's transgressions exceed his merits -- he is rasha; if both are equal-- he is beinoni. The same applies to each country. If the collective merits of its inhabitants exceed trangressions, it is deemed a just country.  If their transgressions exceed their merits, it is deemed iniquitous. And the same applies to the entire world. .... if a countries transgressions exceed its merits, it is subject to immediate destruction. This judgement is not quantitative one however, but a qualitative one."

But how do we measure a countries transgressions? How do we know if our merits exceed our transgressions? In the United States where we have varying opinions on how we inact freedom and whose opinion is right it certainly seems like a hard task to judge. Do we measure by what laws seem just, what attitudes seem appropriate, or what acts of kindness outway our policies? If our whole country felt that each decision they made would be judged in terms of merit or destruction would they we be able to work together for the sake of the countries survival?

As I watched the democratic convention this past week I related to Past President Bill Clintons speech when he cited the mere fact that the discussions revolving around the upcoming election has changed from statements about the issues our country is facing to statements about individuals themselves. Bill said, he was not raised to hate replublicans whereas implying that todays generations are taught that their opinions vary so much from the oppossing party that they don't even attempt to see the goodness in the others opinion and therefore we have become a divisive country rather than one which works together.

Bill says, " Though I often disagree with Republicans, I never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate President Obama and the Democrats. After all, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to my home state to integrate Little Rock Central High and built the interstate highway system. And as governor, I worked with President Reagan on welfare reform and with President George H.W. Bush on national education goals. I am grateful to President George W. Bush for PEPFAR, which is saving the lives of millions of people in poor countries and to both Presidents Bush for the work we've done together after the South Asia tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake.
When times are tough, constant conflict may be good politics but in the real world, cooperation works better. After all, nobody's right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day. All of us are destined to live our lives between those two extremes. Unfortunately, the faction that now dominates the Republican Party doesn't see it that way. They think government is the enemy, and compromise is weakness. "

How are we suppossed to live in a divided country like this? When we view eachother as the 'other' and not see ourselves as sharing responsibility for our countries merits how will we face gods judgement together? It seems that politics in our country has turned into the blame game more than ever before because we find ourselves in a depressed situation where we have dig ourselves out and each party thinks that they have the answers and if elected they will enact them. What we don't realize is that we have so much work to do just to speak the same language again. Each party talks about hope, and change and the capacity to build greatness while each party maintains that  they will not give in to the opposing side. Regardless of who is elected we must committ to working together to shared goals of kindness and the qualitative goals not the quantitative numbers for either side to achieve. In order to be a country that is worthy of other nations respect we must take communal responsibility for the transgressions we have communally committed.

As Kitov shows each person plays a role in this communal judgement. He says, " Each person should therefore see himself-- during the entire year-- as if he were half meitorious and half guilty. Likewise (should he see) the entire world as half meritorious and half guilty. If he commits one sin-- he tips the scale of guilt for himself and the entire world and causes its destruction, as well as his own. If he commits one mitzvah, he tips the scale of merit for himself and for the entire world and causes its salvation as well as his own.' Kitov sites Rambam with this idea.

This is not the first time in Jewish history where destruction for sin was at stake. In the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah Abraham pleads with god to save the cities if he is able to find righteous men, when he is not able to find enough rightous men the cities are in fact destroyed. I fear that our country too may get to the point where we are no longer able to outway our merits with our transgressions. Everyday that we continue to produce hate for one another is another day when we are not moving forward towards mitzvot.

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Vayikra and Tzav: The search for righteousness through sacrifice.


In Our Lives:
Sacrifice. What does the word even mean? In today’s definition, is a sacrifice more similar to a compromise or a selfless act of justice? What do we ‘sacrifice’ these days? We may find giving up our most valuable possessions of our time, food, money, goals, or our own needs may feel sacrificial. If this is the case, are sacrifices even quantifiable?

When it comes to self-sacrifice there are those who keep everything to themselves and look out for only his/her self. Then there are those who are too giving to the extreme that they forget even their own needs. Both for the self-centric and the extreme giver, I often think we need guidelines for how to maintain a healthy balance of the sacrifices we each make in our lives in order to maintain a caring community and larger global society while still fulfilling our own needs.

Reflecting:
When learning a Jewish practice called Mussar I engaged with rituals/ mitzvot (teachings) such as patience, and equanimity. The main idea was that each of us has an inclination towards good and an inclination towards evil or yetzer hatov, and yetzer hara. By engaging with this Jewish social justice practice of Mussar, one could balance between the two inclinations. This was done by asking yourself the question; ‘how am I serving the other?’ This question allowed me to consider the struggle of the other and to self-evaluate my reactions by accounting for how the other may or may not feel cared for in the situation. What is the other person’s burden? Just in asking yourself this questions requires a more sympathetic approach, and the ability to best serve the other.

From the source:
As we turn to a new book of Moses, Leviticus, we learn from the past two weeks torah portions (Vayikra, and Tzav) the value of sacrifice in biblical times. I dare to say the language surrounding the meaning of a sacrifice has changed quite a bit from what it is today. The torah shows the ways in which Jews became closer to G-d through the acts of these animal offerings. Today, instead of object sacrifices, we may offer our evil inclination as sacrifice. We may sacrifice this innate selfish or evil impulse in the hope of achieving either connection with G-d, our people, or in a broader sense in our goals of achieving global justice. A commentator on Vayikra states, “Those individuals who perform a single mitzvah draw themselves and the entire world toward righteousness.” Another commentator citing, “ When we want to draw close (l’hitkarev) to G-d, we must offer something of our own, that is, our ‘evil inclination.’” [1]

May we each continue to sacrifice for others in our lives in the hope that our actions will bring us closer to a more just, and righteous world.


[1] Comments this week come from The Torah A Women’s Commentary edited by: Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (pg. 588)

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P'Kudei (Exodus 38:21- 40:38) -- Relationships: who will you ask to join the fight?


In our lives:
Have you ever thought about how your life revolves around a series of relationships that are in constant flux? A “relationship” is such a vague term. Some of us have easily 20, 50, hundreds, or maybe even thousands of relationships. A “relationship” is defined as the relation/ association between two or more people which may be either fleeting or enduring. Relationships can be professional, personal, intimate, interpersonal, or theoretical. In other words, you have some sort of relationship with every person, organization, and to everything that you encounter.

Reflecting:
Recognizing an abundance of relationships in our lives is easy. More importantly, how are our relationships cultivated and applied? The Jewish Organizing Initiative taught me the true power of relationships. I went from viewing the word “relationship” as exclusively applicable to dating, to a world in which I view my entire existence as it relates to my “relationships” with other people, organizations, communities, and things.

The Jewish Organizing Initiative helped me learn how to tell my own story, how to have a one-to-one (an intentional conversation), how to evaluate my own and other’s self interests, and many more skills which strengthen relationships. Organizing skills allows every conversation I have to be both strategic and fruitful. I spent the year building on, putting into practice, and creating a vocabulary for skills that create change among individual people, and entire communities. It is amazing the collective power that relationships can create. Think about those you choose to help, or what organizations you choose to donate your money to. If someone you have a good relationship with asks you to prioritize their particular cause, and it is in line with your own self-interests then most likely you will do whatever you can to help!

JOI taught me not only how to listen, and identify the challenge, but how to research, connect and apply solutions to systemic problems. These skills all came back to thinking critically and strategically about my relationships. Think about this… two people who share a similar problem may not be able to find a solution, but by sharing their problem with others, and by cultivating relationships, you may find that 200 people share the same problem. Now, you have built power through relationships, and have a need for systemic change. A community organizer may help to orchestrate relationship building among communities. The organizer may enlist the community to start a research campaign, and develop a solution where the community can hold those in power (i.e. government) accountable to the proposed solution. The collective people may ask that action be taken in a public forum. And that is powerful! Change like this could not be achieved without the power of relationships. Never underestimate the power of people and the ways in which individual relationships can build that power. So, share your story and think about who you know and how you can help each other make a difference!

From the source:
Last week in parshat P’Kudei we see a glimpse into the relationship between G-d and Moses. G-d trusts Moses with leading the Israelite people, and Moses in turn trusts G-d’s power. Throughout the book of Exodus, we have seen strengths and weaknesses in the relationship between G-d and Moses, and Moses and the Israelite people. But, as we complete the construction of the tabernacle, we see how the power of relationships has affected Moses, G-d, and the Isaelite people. They have learned from their mistakes and have begun to work together. They have proven to one another their ability to do great work,

“ Just as G-d had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work. And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks—as G-d had commanded, so they had done—Moses blessed them.” (Exodus 39: 42-3)

These relationships rely on one another to achieve their common goals of holiness. They want to be able to feel G-d’s presence in a collected space (the tabernacle). In order to feel G-d’s presence the Israelites must abide put faith and trust into their leaders, and rely on one another to collectively build a holy site. Just as Moses uses community organizing by working through his relationships we too can help strengthen our campaigns when we collectively use our relationships to create united power.

The take-away:
How are you using your relationships to organize power, and create change? Are you constantly thinking about how to strengthen your relationships? Are you looking for ways to create change, and do you ask those around you to help you do so? No? Take the time now to figure out what it is you will fight for! And who will you ask to join the movement? Want to learn these skills?? JOI is now accepting applications from passionate Jews looking to fight for change! www.jewishorganizing.org

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Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35) -- Responding to disappointments.. ( A D'var from 2010)

Moses is perhaps the world’s first community organizer. Moses gathers his people, fights out against injustice, and manipulates G-d’s power for change. However, Moses, leader of the Jewish people is not immune to great disappointment. Moses’ reaction towards challenges in his life teaches the Jewish people great lessons about responding to disappointment. In Exodus Chapter 32, we see Moses struggle personally, as a leader of a great nation, and in his relationship with G-d. As Moses is atop Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, his people are betraying his trust by building and worshiping a golden calf. Angered, G-d threatens to destroy the people in hopes of creating a superior society to continue his teachings. Moses, defends his community out of love and pleas with G-d: “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom you delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand” (Exodus, 32.11)

Upon descending the mountain, Moses sees the idolatry himself. Did the Israelites not have enough faith in Moses to wait for his return and delivery to them the words of G-d? “He (Moses) became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.” (Exodus, 32.19) Moses who earlier defended the people worshipping the calf to G-d saw his dream of leading G-d’s chosen people to the Promised Land shatter like the tablets upon witnessing this wicked act. Moses is disappointed in his people. He must rebuild the mutual faith and trust between himself and his community in order to perpetuate a great nation. In this moment Moses learns that being a leader is not only about his dreams for his community, but rather about how he works with his community together towards success.

What does this teach us for our own lives? How do we handle disappointments?
Like Moses, we often hold great expectations for ourselves, and for others. In fact, we are taught to do so. Throughout childhood we are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” No child answers ‘I want to barely get by’. Instead, we dream of being doctors, lawyers and professional athletes. As time goes on, we are faced with challenges, and disappointments. Maybe we never grow tall enough to be a basketball player, or we realize we fear public speaking. We, like Moses, realize that when things don’t work out according to our ideals we must learn how to cope and work towards the best of our abilities. We turn our love of sports into a hobby instead of a profession. We relentlessly work on that which can be improved, always striving for our fullest selves.

Moses reevaluated the situation and returned with a renewed faith. Taking his disappointment in stride, he shifted his expectations. With his community at the forefront, Moses decides how they can move forward together. He picked up his dreams of leading a people to become a great nation and went back to G-d. This time G-d had Moses craft tablets, which G-d inscribed. “The replacement tablets, unlike the originals, will be a joint human-divine effort … reflect(ing) the perfection of G-d, the second set reflected the will of G-d and the ideals of G-d filtered through the limitations of human beings and the reality of human experience.” (Kushner, p. 43)

Like Moses, we can learn from our mistakes. We may not live a life without failure but we can choose how we respond to challenges. We can find determination within ourselves to reevaluate and renew what we had before it was broken. We may alter our dreams but keep the lessons of our disappointments with us. Through our response to disappointments, we can learn more about who we are and who we want to be. Our dreams change as we grow, and we determine if the dreams we once had align with our current goals and search for happiness. In times of disappointment, Moses was carried on by his devotion and love for his community and by G-d. Moses was able to forgive that which had happened, and realized limitations. He continued to persevere and create new dreams. We too can emulate Moses’s ability to move past challenges. We can rely on our community to carry us through the struggles we face within our lives and strengthen our ability to create new dreams.

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תרומה –תצוה (Exodus 25- 30:10) T'rumah and T'tzaveh-- And you shall be a blessing....


Trying out a new blog format, feedback welcome!


In our lives:
February is Jewish Disability Awareness month. Awareness itself is an interesting term to wrap your mind around, it makes me ask: how are we building “awareness” and about what specifically? Are we being ‘aware’ just by engaging in conversations about disabilities? How do we talk about disability, in what context, and what actions are we taking in our society to help those who may have different physical or mental challenges. I took this week to reflect on what it means to be able-bodied, the ways in which each person is a gift, and the varying individual tools each person has at his/her disposal. Many organizations in the Jewish world are doing work to think through how to integrate Jewish Disability Awareness month within their own communities. See links below.


When it comes to talking about disabilities I am always struck by the importance of language. Have you ever thought about the negative association formed with words used to describe several handicaps? The implications from these words such as handicap, disabled, wheelchair bound, amputee, retard, etc, are all negative. Language is important, especially when it affects how we view people. One way to combat negative connotations of language is to state the person first rather than the handicap. For example the man who is blind vs. the blind man. This shows that it is only one aspect of his identity rather than the defining factor. Given that every person is differently able, and we each have different strengths and weakness it seems unfair to label someone who only has one arm, or will never surpass a third grade reading level as disabled, why not label each person as unique? Idealistic, I know, but I still feel there is a better way to describe people then by pointing out their limitations first. Instead of the girl with brown hair it becomes the deaf girl. When we talk about disabilities there is a certain amount of sorrow or unspoken pity for those who can’t do certain tasks. Take a minute to think of how exceptional those who are disabled would feel if we took the time to ask questions about their challenges and how they can accomplish something instead of making our own assumptions about their capabilities.


Reflecting:
When I reflect on why it is important to have a month where we think about the disabled among us I think about the individual tools we each possess. It is naïve to think that we can do everything on our own; we must look to the support of others to help us iron out our own strengths and weaknesses. We each have gifts, and we each have a set of tools, it is figuring out how to use them well, and how to learn from others that is the real challenge. We are each only as able as we let ourselves be. There is so much that we can learn from one another if we are willing to both ask for and accept help. Those with physical or mental disabilities are just like everyone else with their own strengths and weaknesses. Think of those you admire who have amazing talents. Are even the extremely gifted able to do everything well? Or is there something in particular that they shine at, and other things which they struggle with? We must figure out how to use our resources to the best of our abilities including allowing others to support us in the ways where we may not be as ‘able’ as our friends, family or neighbor.

With everything we do we must look to those around us and be open to learning. When we think we can do everything on our own we lose the ability to be positively influenced and changed by others. I think we give up our own self growth when we assume we have no need for others help.


From the source:
The past two weeks Torah portions, T’rumah and T’tzaveh talk about how the Jews did and should build the tabernacle, or sanctuary. Building is something we must do together, when we build or create we use our own tools to make something spectacular. To me, building is similar to learning from each-other. One builds together the same way one learns from the teaching of others. We rely on the wisdom and abilities of those that came before us and the unique gifts that we can bring to the table. Whether you are brilliant, musically gifted, an artist, an economist, a pop-culture guru, etc. everyone has a passion and the ability to share; it’s what we learn from one another that builds our individual character. So the next time you see someone struggling don't pity them but rather offer your skills and look for what you can learn from them as well. I guarantee the only thing standing between you and those around you is fear and the inability to see past differences. Think positively and ask the person in your midst to share their gift with you.

"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him (yidvenu libo)…And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them."

(Exodus, 25:1, 2, 8)

While the text deals with the specific building of a tabernacle, we also see pieces of how God asks for the gifts of the people to be shared with him. Showing us to not only be appreciative of the gifts that are offered to us, but also to be receptive of where these gifts come from. Our gifts are our passions and we must always remember how much we have both to offer and to learn from each person among us. By interacting together we can achieve holiness similar to that which comes from the building of the tabernacle.


As we continue to read the story of Exodus, I'm reminded that last week we celebrated both Moses’s birthday and date of death on Friday, the 7th of Adar. Moses, while a memorable Jewish leader in history was ‘slow of speech’ implying a lisp or speech impediment. Yet when Moses is remembered we speak of his strengths and accomplishments. In fact his brother Aaron often spoke on his behalf, but it was Moses who was the visionary and whom God choose to lead the Jewish people on their journey. Let us not forget the skills we can share with the world and the ways in which we can be open to the teachings of those among us whether able-bodied or disabled.


And you shall be a blessing.....

Debbie Friedman’s lyrics:

L'chi lach, to a land that I will show you

Leich l'cha, to a place you do not know
L'chi lach, on your journey I will bless you
And you shall be a blessing
L'chi lach, and I shall make your name great
Leich l'cha, and all shall praise your name
L'chi lach, to the place that I will show you


Union for Reform Judaism Jewish Disability Awareness Month related blogposts
North American Federation for Temple Youth JDAM Resources
Religious Action Center engages with JDAM
Gateways Jewish education for children with disabilities

Follow #JDAM on twitter

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ּבשלח (Exodus 13:17-17:16) B'shalach- Are Miracles always good?

The Text:
This week's Torah portion highlights the miracles that occur as the Jews leave the land of Egypt. Mainly, this miracle refers to Moses parting the red sea in order for the Jews to safely cross out of Egypt. We often use the word miracle when taking about something unexplainable, or supernatural. As my niece cited "we use (the word) miracle when we talk about hope." What she meant by this is that we pray for miracles, hope, change; all positive occurrences. Is the word miracle ever used to highlight a negative change? Or, when something negative happens and since we view it as "for the best" we say it is a miracle? This miracle, which assists in the final step of the Jews exodus, is sung about at every Friday night Shabbat service. When we sing the prayer Mi Chamocha, we say, "Who is like you Eternal one, among the Gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?" As Jewish communities sing the Mi Chamocha they do so to show praise for a God that performs amazing, and unexplainable miracles that we can only continue to hope will happen in our lives. Some people spend their entire lives waiting for a miracle or the near impossible to occur. When we sing this prayer we are showing that we believe in God's ability to perform these miracles. What isn’t talked about in this particular miracle is that after the red sea is closed thousands of Egyptians drowned. Do we turn an eye to these Egyptian murders because their deaths 'miraculously' saved the Jewish people? While we are taught 'you shall not kill', does this not apply when perhaps the death itself is 'for the best'? Or when it is in self-defense?

The Implication:
There are very few "miracles" that occur in our lives anymore. A miracle is more than a happy occasion; it is trying to explain the unexplainable. Something that is still miraculous in our lives is the creation of people. Scientifically we know how cells multiply and how babies come to be as growing organisms but the fact is that the creation of human life is still miraculous. As is the body's ability to heal itself. This week I found myself in conversation with a friend in medical school who is currently doing an ob/ gyn rotation where seeing the ‘miracle of life’ is a daily occurrence. However, this particular conversation was different. This week a young pregnant patient of his lost her baby at the end of her second trimester. In other words, if the baby had been born s/he would have had a high chance of survival at this stage. While miscarriages occur statistically with some frequency, when it is personal, and you're dealing with people experiencing this loss first hand it is nothing but tragic. There is an association with new life of being a time of happiness and joy. But, when this expected happiness is coupled with tragedy we often find ourselves at a loss of how to react. However, what if this loss is also a miracle? What if it is in some ways ‘for the best’? What if there were abnormalities in the fetus which would have caused a life of hardship? How do we psychologically come to terms with the loss of something we never had or got to experience? How do we wrestle with this unexplainable loss? How do we as a community act in a supportive way to those who have experienced pregnancy loss? As we see in this weeks Torah portion sometimes miracles are intertwined with extremes, and result in both positive and negative outcomes. Do we then redefine the term
miracle
?

The Application:

Whether it be a miracle or a loss we turn to our community for support in times of need. We share stories, gather for meals, and remind ourselves that it is people who will always be there. In our technological age it is easy to forget that when it matters most we rely on our family, and friendships. For those experiencing a life changing moment it is imperative to be able to be embraced by a caring community. Whether you're praying for a miracle or have either experienced a health related miracle or loss, it is important to figure out ways you can ask for what you need from those around you. Additionally, while being in need may not be something currently pertinent to your life, have you thought about how to be available to those you care about who may currently or in the future face such challenging times? Do you reflect on how to be a good listener, and express appropriate empathy? As well as figuring out when to step up and lend a helping hand so that it isn’t up to one person to bear the full burden after something monumental in their lives has happened? Sometimes our cards of life are dealt and we have to figure out how we will respond to situations which may arise in our own and others’ lives. What if we were to think of how we would react to such a tragedy as if were our own, would this strengthen our ability to feel empathy. Whether it be a miracle or a loss that we will have to deal with throughout our lives it is up to us to figure out how to be grateful for what we have and how to be ready for future trials. There are different organizations who have done the work of figuring out how to help people be supportive to their friends and family in need even regarding unthinkable topics such as pregnancy loss, read resources below. Click for other related posts on loss or how to be supportive.

Take a minute to think about how fragile our lives are and what miracles you are currently praying/ hoping for. How could you be better supported? How can you better help those around you? Do those you care about know that you are there for them? Are we paying attention and remembering to be grateful for the miracles which occur in our own lives?



A Jewish response to helping clergy and community respond to pregnancy loss that hits close to home
My cousin has documented the life of her one year old Mazzy in the best blog I've ever seen- mommyshorts.com
Velveteen rabbi poems about miscarriage
Expecting Adam - A great read, a book about one womans supernatural experience when carrying a baby with down syndrome

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