Judaism - Torah

Beautiful Tents: Shabbat Balak

In thinking about this week’s Torah, and what’s going on in the world, here’s what I’m not going to talk about:

  • Immigration policy
  • Whether it’s okay to call detention centres “Concentration Camps”
  • Whether it’s okay to tell those with whom you vehemently disagree to “go back to where you came from”

What I am going to do is tell a story:

There’s a king; a powerful king of a mountainous land.

And this king – his name is Balak – becomes frightened.

He’s frightened because there is a group of people who are getting closer and closer to his country, and he is afraid that they will overwhelm his land.

He’s worried that there are too many of them; that they will be a drain on natural resources; that they will encroach on his people’s property.

He’s not just afraid; he’s disgusted by them.

So he uses his kingly power – his bully pulpit – and summons a magician; a prophet; someone who can use the power of word to accomplish radical things.

The king asks this magician to do just that: to incite against these people – these foreigners – to drive them away.

But the magician also is afraid, and senses that this is not proper.

The king uses his great power and wealth to entice the magician to side with him.

The magician is torn: does he side with his higher beliefs, or does he take advantage of the great opportunities afforded him.

And – because this is a story from the Torah – the magician speaks with God – a representative, or the wellspring of these higher values.

And God emphatically declares: whatever that king may tell you to do, do not do it. Only listen to me. When he tells you to spew words of curses and hatred, only speak what I offer you.

The king implores the magician to curse the people – let’s call them, “the Children of Israel.”

But every time that the magician opens his mouth, the only words that emerge are sweet words of blessing.

The message of hatred and fear against a transient group is overpowered by a divine message of blessing.

 

A foreign magician – close to the upper echelons of power, wealth, and influence – sides with the marginalized; the wandering refugees; the freedom-searchers.

I told you I wasn’t going to talk about immigration or detention centres, or “going back to where you came from.”

Instead, I want to ask a theological question: Why does the king Balak and the magician Bilam – both non Jewish, both outside Israelite society – why do they benefit from God’s prophecy?

To put it another way: why does God intervene and speak with Bilam and change what happens? It could just as easily transpired that Bilam cursed Israel as Balak had wished – and then after the fact, they were punished.

Instead, whenever Bilam opens his mouth to curse Israel, God makes it so that blessings come out. Why? Why should they benefit from God’s presence?

Our teacher, Rashi – the medieval French commentator – offers a profound answer: So that nobody anywhere could ever use as an excuse: “I didn’t know the rules. If only I had known them, I would have been better.”

The idea here is that there are certain foundational ideas that you don’t get to avoid – whether you’re in or you’re out; whether you have power, or you don’t.

You can’t claim “we don’t play by those rules.” There are certain rules; certain core principles that apply to everyone.

And it’s interesting that Rashi pinpoints this particular story as conveying that idea. It’s not really a story about idolatry. Or Shabbat. Or Kashrut. Or Circumcision. Or any of the parts of the Torah that you might think we’re really supposed to focus on.

Instead, we have a story about someone in a position of power and his relationship to those not in power: those in a transient community; those just trying to get from one place to another in peace.

And the Torah says: this is the moment when you need to remember: nobody gets a pass; there’s not such thing as: “I didn’t know the rules.” The Torah conveys a vision of how the world is meant to be through a story about non-Israelites.

In the midst of stories of the Israelites wanderings through the desert, where Moses and Aaron and their families and tribes are the protagonists, the Torah takes a detour to tell a story that focuses on Balak, the evil ruler, and Bilam, the magician. The Israelites are passive players in this story – they are the “Other” lurking in the background. On the fringes; on the outside.

Now: a word of caution: It’s too easy to read this story and see it as advocating immigrant rights and an open-door policy. It’s too easy to cherry pick readings from the Torah as advocating specific public policies.

That’s not what I’m trying to do.

Because you can do that just as easily for more liberal perspectives as you can for more conservative ones; the Torah is not a modern political policy.

But you can’t escape the fact that the Torah has something very loudly to say here.

The Torah seems to be very weary of those who would use their political and military power; their wealth; and their bully-pulpit propaganda to disparage – or at worse, to harm – those outsiders.

The story ends with Bilaam – the prophet sent to curse the Israelites – instead offering them blessings.

Ma Tovu Ohalekha Ya’akov; Mishkenotecha Yisrael,” he says.

How beautiful are your tents – the places where you live, children of Israel

Words so powerful, that even though they are the words of a foreign magician, they are taken from him and used in the morning prayer service said every day.

The story ends with blessing and beauty and recognition of the other.

It doesn’t resolve King Balak’s wishes by advocating a particular policy.

It doesn’t take a political stance.

It doesn’t advocate protectionism and it doesn’t really condemn xenophobia.

That’s not what the Torah wants us to know.

Instead, the Torah wants us to recognize a very simple message:

The places where people are just trying to live – even when transient; even when on the fringes of society – they can be beautiful. They require at the very least our attention, no matter how deep – and perhaps how understandable – our fears may be.

These places where people are just trying to live – what they demand must of all is our attention and care and blessings – not our curses.

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Judaism - Torah

A Corrective in Silence

I find it hard to escape the idea that the world could be a lot better these days if people were quieter.

Less angry debates carried out not to further knowledge, but to quash dissenting opinions.

Fewer 👏 clapping 👏 emojis 👏 to 👏 punctuate 👏 ALL-CAPS 👏 declarations 👏 on 👏 Twitter.

Less political grandstanding.

Fewer feverish rallies.

More silence: to think, to process, to reflect, to learn.

And so, I locked my Twitter account last night. Had my partner change my password, and told her keep it from me.

Silence.

Continue reading “A Corrective in Silence”

Judaism - Torah

“We are Billion-Year-Old Carbon:” Parashat Vayikra

On Friday afternoon, I was at the Masjid Muhammad Mosque just a few blocks away from Sixth & I.

I was there with other members of the Jewish community, who we went in solidarity and out of profound sadness and anguish at the murderous attacks on mosques in New Zealand, which have left 49 precious souls dead.

I sat on the floor of the Mosque, listening as the Imam, Talib Shareef, taught about the prayers for the Muslim day of rest – the Jumu’ah. He shared that they are about remembering all of the forces that went into the creation of the world.

And I smiled, because Shabbat, for Jews, is the same: zecher l’ma’aseh v’reishit, we say in our Shabbat blessings: we rest in remembrance of the act of creation.

Why was this important, the Imam asked?

Because if you turn your thoughts to creation, and go far back enough – you get to this person, this idea, that we call Adam. Adam. The very name Judaism gives to all of humanity.

Our rabbis ask: why was all humanity born from just one person? So that nobody could say to their neighbour: my father, my mother is better than your father; your mother.

And if you go far back enough in creation, you get to one place. One moment in time. A big bang. Or a single sentence: “Let there be… us.”

And our rabbis ask: why was all of humanity created with the same dirt of the earth?
So that no person could say to another: I come from a place better than the place you come from.

We’re all made up of the same billion-year old stardust. Continue reading ““We are Billion-Year-Old Carbon:” Parashat Vayikra”

Judaism - Torah

A Uniform that’s a Little Bit Inside-Out: Parashat Tetzaveh

When I was six-years-old, my parents signed me up to play softball. I already had a baseball bat and glove, but what I remember most is the first time I got a team jersey. I was so excited to put on that royal blue and red shirt. I got to show everyone that I played softball, and whose team I was on. (It was the Baskin Robins Blue Jays).

The truth is, I was probably more excited about wearing that jersey than I was about playing the game itself. I wasn’t… very good. My parents never miss the opportunity to joke: “oh sure, our son’s a rabbi… but you should have seen him tryto play in the outfield.”

But I loved wearing that uniform, even off the field. We love wearing our affiliations on our sleeves – broadcasting to the world a little part of our identity, and showing off whose team we’re on.

I’ve been thinking back on my history with baseball jerseys in light of what we read this week in the Torah.

Continue reading “A Uniform that’s a Little Bit Inside-Out: Parashat Tetzaveh”

Judaism - Torah

Make Sure that You’re Not Signing on to the Quick Fix: Parashat Terumah

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Based on research from my previous Parashat Terumah sermon, and updated with some new thoughts.

Valentine’s Day is upon us.

Maybe you wouldn’t expect the rabbi to talk about it on Shabbat. Especially given the hyper-commercial nature of the day, and the unfortunate antisemitism associated with St. Valentine. But I was thinking about it, because of all the angel imagery that seems to pop up on Valentine’s Day.

What is it about the power we humans have given to the idea of angels? For thousands of years, they have captured the attention of artists, writers, and religious figures. And Hallmark cards.

Turns out they also make a stunning appearance in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah. Terumah is all about God’s instructions to build the portable tabernacle – the house of prayer known as the mishkan – that the Israelites carry through their wandering trip through the desert.

The Torah says: For the ark (just like our ark here), make a cover of pure gold… [and] make two cherubs of gold.

These cherubs have long seized our imagination. What exactly are they?

To begin with, a cherub is not the chubby, angelic baby with bows and arrows of Valentine’s Day cards and Renaissance art. Most scholars agree that when the Torah talks about cherubs, they are probably a winged hybrid of a lion and a human: a sphinx.

Now I want to point out something that is entirely confusing to me. One of the foundational rules of the Torah is that we can’t make idols. But here, God tells the Israelites to carve these strange human/lion statues out of a solid piece of gold. And then to place that statue right inside the most holy of places!

Continue reading “Make Sure that You’re Not Signing on to the Quick Fix: Parashat Terumah”

Judaism - Torah

A beacon of light in a moment of darkness: Parashat Veyechi

Like so many, I grew up with the ritual of having a parent turn on a nightlight before putting you to bed at night.

For me, the comforting warm glow of that tiny lightbulb was like a beacon of security; a reassurance that the dark night wasn’t just an empty void.

We don’t like the dark. It’s scary – filled with the unknown.

There’s certainly something evolutionary about this fear – for thousands of years, the night was filled with dangers, and something to be feared for good reason!

But dislike of the dark is not something limited to children or to our prehistoric ancestors.

I lived in New York City for ten years, where, come nightfall, any anxieties at the darkness are calmed by the millions of little points of light that spark on, without fail. Pitch black is not something familiar to New York.

At night, I could always look out my window and be reassured that someone was awake. Even if they were across the alleyway, I knew that I wasn’t alone. My existential dread was calmed by the warm, reassuring glow of my neighbour’s TV.

There’s something spiritually nourishing about nighttime in New York. It’s a reminder that we’re not alone in the world.

And then I moved to Washington D.C. This is a busy city, for sure. But at night… it’s quiet and dark. Sleep specialists might tell you that’s a good thing… but I know better.

My first night here, I had flashbacks to my childhood. Without the comfort of my neighbours’ lights, I had nostalgic pangs for my nightlight.

And don’t we all recognize this feeling, buried somewhere deep in our guts?

But of course, “It’s 2018,” you say! “We humans have harnessed the power of fire! We’ve discovered electricity, and invented the LED lightbulb, which won’t burn out, even after 100 years of continual use!”

To this, I say: you can be thirty-five years old, and then something goes bump in the dark, and your mind starts racing. We desperately want to be able to see, to look at things head-on with the power of our own eyes.

And here we are, on the longest, darkest night of the year.

It’s not a coincidence that so many cultures have festivals of light right at this time of year – we all have a desire to bring more light, more warmth into the world when it seems to be at its darkest. There’s an ancient wisdom to this.

We want to fill the darkness with light.

How can we do this?

Some wisdom from the Torah:

In this week’s parasha, we reach the end of the book of Genesis. The story of Joseph is wrapping up. Jacob, his father (who had thought Joseph was dead, and hadn’t seen him for years), sentimentally recounts the story of the death of his beloved wife, Joseph’s mother, Rachel.

There’s a powerful moment as Joseph brings his two children, Ephraim and Menasseh, to see their grandfather before he dies.

It’s bittersweet, filled with the poignant beauty of one generation passing the torch to another. But it’s darkly dramatic, confronting the reality of death and Jacob’s sorrow. And on top of this, Jacob is nearly blind – quite literally, living in the dark!

What does Jacob do, in this darkest of moments?

He can barely see his grandchildren – he has to ask Joseph who they are! But when Joseph tells him, Jacob says: “Bring them closer to me, so that I can bless them.” Jacob reaches out, embraces his grandchildren, kisses them, and offers them a blessing for their future.

In one of the darkest moments of his life, Jacob looks ahead to the future with gratitude and blessing. He says to Joseph: “I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see my grandchildren, as well!”

Jacob offers a beacon of light in a moment of darkness.

Like our ancestors so long ago, we all have to make the long trek through the night at some point. Maybe it’s a literal darkness. Maybe it’s metaphoric.

How do we do it? One interpretation of this piece of Torah offers some brilliance: There’s something significant about Jacob embracing and kissing his grandchildren. This was no ordinary hug and kiss between family members.

Everyone wants to be seen, to be recognized. Remember – Jacob is nearly blind. Maybe his grandchildren would have mistaken his inability to see them as a sign that he didn’t love them as much.

So he draws them closer to convey his love.

We all have our limitations. Sometimes, it’s dark and we can’t see. But instead of hiding in the dark and recoiling away, Jacob reaches out with warmth, love and blessing.

When the night is long and dark – what do you do? You can hide, paralyzed by fear, or your own sense of inadequacy, or inabilities.

Or you can be the light for others.

And here’s the genius: Jacob’s inability to see light doesn’t diminish his ability to give light.He still has a warm embrace, and an open heart that wants to give blessing to others.

When surrounded by the darkness, each one of us still has the power to offer some of our own light and warmth.
The Talmud (Megillah 24b) tells a beautiful story:

One time, I was walking in the absolute darkness of night, and I saw a blind person who was walking through the dark, with a torch in his hand.

I asked him: “Why do you need this torch, if you are blind?”

He told me: “As long as this torch is in my hand, people can see me, and save me from the danger.”

The light that we offer in the darkness – even with all of the things that we are blind to – can offer warmth and direction to others, and indeed, it can save us, too.

What is the light you have to give?

Like Jacob, may you radiate it out to others, especially when the world seems at its darkest.

Judaism - Torah

Resolutions vs. Rededications

One of my favourite things about Chanukah is its name. In Hebrew, the word means rededication. It’s a sign of one part of the holiday’s origin story: the ancient and holy Temple in Jerusalem had been pillaged and defiled by invading armies, who threatened the Jewish community with death should they not renounce their identity and become pagans. Yet despite the immense power imbalance, a comparatively small group of Jews was able to fend off the invaders.

After defending Jerusalem, the Jews re-entered the Temple, cleaned it, and rededicated it as a sacred Jewish space. It was a time of immense joy and celebration, as the Jewish community was able to observe their traditions without being persecuted.

Can you imagine what it must have felt like? A minority, despised for being different, able at last to rise above the hatred and divisiveness; its people able to express their identity freely without fear.

The ancient Jews rededicated their most sacred of spaces. And in doing so, they rededicated themselves to what was most important to them.

So what is it about this word that inspires me?

Many spend the waning days of December mulling over new resolutions for the coming year: “I want to stop eating fried food.” “I want to lose 25 pounds.” “I want to be more like someone else.” “I want to be less like someone else.” It can be exhausting. After all, we all know the success rate of new year’s resolutions, right?

The word “resolution,” it turns out (and forgive the grammar-nerd moment, here), comes from a Latin word which means “to loosen,” “to dissolve,” or “to release.” It’s quite literally the opposite of the idea of rededication!

Along comes Chanukah with a simple, yet counter-cultural, reminder: you don’t have to release yourself from who you are. You don’t have to obsess over dissolving yourself into someone new. That’s not to say that we can’t grow and change. But sometimes, what’s most important is to rededicate yourself to who you already are and what you already believe in. To clean out all the junk – either imposed by others or self-imposed –  that gets in the way and makes it difficult to be ourselves. Just like the Maccabees did in Jerusalem so long ago.

This year, as we head into the final month of 2018 and look forward to 2019, you can welcome Chanukah as an invitation to focus less on transforming yourself into someone else’s idea of who or what you should be, and more into returning to your strongest sense of self.

Wishing you a chag chanukah sameach – happy festival of rededication!