Friday, November 19, 2010

What is a name?

In this weeks Torah portion we find jacob approaching the borders of Canaan on his return from Padan Aram, and his Uncle Lavan's home. He is overcome with fear over the pending reunion with his brother Esau. Remember thirty four years ago when Jacob ran in fear because he had just taken his brothers birthright.

He starts the reunion not in person but first, by sending flocks to appease Esau and placing his family and possessions on the other side of a stream called the Yabbok for safety, Ya'akov was left alone for one night which he spent wrestling with a man until the break of dawn. This strange man, whom the Rabbi's explain to be an angel reveals that no longer will Jacob be his name but rather Israel.

This leads us to the question then, what exactly is in a name? Obviously assigning names holds some cosmic significance since giving names to all the creatures on the earth is the first recorded activity of man (B'reishit 2:20). The Or HaChaim teaches us that each name represents a soul. In this light (pun intended), the causative nature of a name is revealed: a name is a representation, a function, and carries with it personality traits. The Hebrew word for "name," spelled "Shin, Mem" contains the same letters as the Hebrew word for "put," suggesting that names place upon us the very nature of our beings.
Our tradition teaches that each of us has three names: the one we are given at birth, the one we are called, and our real name. The task of each person, according to the tradition, is to discover our real name.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Do you have to believe in God to be Jewish? 
I can’t tell you how often I discuss this question with children and adults.  “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in,”  I often respond.  Most people, it will not surprise you, do not believe in a God who looks like an old man sitting up in the sky pulling strings.  But do you believe that there is a source of ultimate goodness in the world?  Do you believe that everything happens for a reason?  Do you believe that at the end of the day you simply die or is there something more?  These are the questions we struggle with.
This week in the Torah we read about our father Jacob dreaming in the desert.  He wrestles with an angel.  When morning light comes the angel tries to leave.  Jacob demands that the angel bless him.  The angel says that he will change Jacob’s name to “Israel,” meaning “one who wrestles with God.” 
In our Comparative Religion class we teach our children that the fundamental difference between Judaism and Christianity is one of beliefs verses actions.  In Christianity the most important thing is to believe in Jesus as the human representative of God.  In Judaism the most important thing is to observe the mitzvot – the commandments which instruct us how to live a good life.  As a Jew you may struggle with the idea of God and that is OK.  That is what the people of Israel are about – we are people who wrestle with God.  This is who Jacob was, and who he became, a man who started off his life with great deceit and in turn was deceived himself.  He literally gave birth to the tribes of Israel.  Though he struggled with God, he ensured the survival of the Jewish people. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Sibling rivalry, parents’ pettiness, estranged family members. It is always surprising to me when people say that they don’t find Judaism relevant to their lives. What could be more relevant?

This week in Parashat Toledot we read about Rebecca and Isaac and their sons Jacob and Esau. As you may remember, while Rebecca is pregnant, she is told that her two sons will war against each other. She prefers Jacob and helps him trick his brother and father to receive Isaac’s blessing, which was Esau’s birthright. The story is a difficult one to understand from the outside. How could parents behave this way? Why isn’t Isaac able to un-do the blessing once he knows he has been tricked? Why aren’t Jacob and Rebecca punished?

The questions actually led me to think about families and how we often look at families from the outside and judge them. On one of my favorite TV shows the male character turns to the female one and says, “Now don’t judge me” She replies, “I wouldn’t do that.” He then says, “Sure you would! That’s what we do, we judge… Some people play sports, others read… we judge!”

Our tradition teaches us, “Don’t judge a fellow human being until you have stood in his place.” Family relationships are the most complex, difficult, and long lasting relationships that we have. Each of us struggles to live up to the ideal and embrace the reality of these relationships. Yet family relationships are often more public than we would prefer. I often think that stories like these are included in the Torah so we understand that everyone’s families have difficult moments, life-altering decisions, and attempts at reconciliation. This is what being involved with someone for your entire life is all about. You need not reproach yourself for how difficult your relationships are, but rather try simply to make them a little better today than they were yesterday.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The life of Sarah

This week’s parasha is entitled Chaye Sarah. In English it means “the life of Sarah” but the parasha begins with her death. The Rabbis who comment on the Torah say that Sarah died when she heard about Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac.

When did Sarah hear about the sacrifice? What did she hear? Did someone tell her that Abraham was going to sacrifice her son and she knew what he would do in that situation? How often in Jewish life do we hear something and jump to a conclusion without truly finding out the whole story. We assume, based on past experiences, or based on one person’s negative experience, that the worst is true.

I wonder what Sarah thought about God. Here is a divinity that had taken her away from her family to journey into the desert. She was promised a child but forced to give a surrogate to her husband. She finally gives birth late in life and then hears that her husband is asked to sacrifice that son. “Why is this God asking so much?” I am sure she asked. Just hearing about what might have happened was enough -- she was walking away.

All too often in religious life, I feel that the negative experiences far outweigh the positives. Sarah rightfully did not think about how her children would be blessed years later or what she had gained already by deciding to be Jewish. She had big expectations and she wanted them to be realized sooner rather than later. If we could speak to her now, would she think it would have been worth it? Would she have understood the test?

We are all on journeys – hopefully not as taxing as Sarah’s, but they are lifetime relationships with Judaism, with the synagogue, and with God. It is hard to really reflect on your whole journey. It is easier to think about what you are receiving and what you are giving at this moment. But in the end, when we look back on our journey we hope that Judaism and synagogues have added to our lives. For me that is the goal of my rabbinate, to ensure that each child and family that I come into contact with has a richer, more meaningful life because Judaism enabled them to add holiness to that life.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What is a sukkah?
Today I recieved an email from a friend that has opened my eyes! Can you make it to New Yrok? At least take a look and vote online!

Sukkah vs. Sukkah
Twelve architects compete to redesign the ritual holiday hut—and you get to pick the winner.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Burning books

Hours before Rosh Hashanah and here are the thoughts burning in my head....

The Bebelplatz in Berlin is known as the site of the infamous Nazi book burning ceremony held in the evening of May 10, 1933 by members of the SA ("brownshirts"), SS, Nazi students and Hitler Youth groups, on the instigation of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. The Nazis burned around 20,000 books, including works by Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx and many other authors. Today a memorial by Micha Ullman consisting of a glass plate set into the cobbles, giving a view of empty bookcases, commemorates the book burning. It is a powerful reminder of an event that is painful to consider. I stood there as a tourist and creid seeing the empty shelves!
A line of Heinrich Heine is engraved at the sight, stating "Dort, wo man B├╝cher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen" (in English: "Where they burn books, they ultimately burn people").

I was very distressed to learn of the planned "Burn a Koran Day" on Sept. 11 at the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville.
As Jews, we have a tragic history of watching bigots and fanatics burn our books, and we know that very often book-burning is the beginning, not the end, of provocation and violence against a people. We also know the pain which is added to a terrible situation when others remain silent in the face of such awful intolerance. And so we feel it is our sacred duty to stand with all good people, from all religions, against this shameful act.
It is both factually and morally wrong to blame all Muslims for the 9/11 attacks, and to assault their religion through the desecration of their holiest book. We cannot remain silent as their sacred scriptures are burned, nor can we accept the demonization of an entire religion because of the terrible acts of a minority from that religion.
I pray that the organizers of this travesty will desist from their plans, as I pray that our Muslim friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members know that these fanatics do not speak for the rest of us.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Opening the Gates

The liturgy of the High Holy Days is permeated with the metaphor of “the gates.” The gates of repentance are opened for us as the new year enters. The gates of repentance begin to close at Neilah. So, too, in most modern American synagogues, there is a literal and physical “opening of the gates” in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In anticipation of holiday crowds we open up our sanctuaries by retracting the back wall. A vast space is thereby created for our enlarged congregation. Just as in ancient Jerusalem on the festivals, the gates of the Temple are opened and the crowds surge in.

The High Holy Days are powerful. For centuries, the sound of the shofar has summoned Jews to our places of worship. Jews of every stripe are moved by its sounds. Regular worshipers and holiday-only worshipers, believers and non-believers, old and young, men and women, Hebrew readers and non-Hebrew readers, congregational activists and those who struggle defining their place in the congregation – all of us, it seems, are drawn to our sanctuary.

The back wall of the sanctuary in a just a few days will no longer in place. A sea of chairs awaits the congregation. The office is abuzz with preparations. The phone is ringing. E-mails are piling up. The holidays draw near!

But in a deeper sense, the gates of the spirit, the gates of Jewishness, the gates of community are beginning to open. Out there, on our personal radar screens, a bleep approaches. Rosh Hashanah is just around the corner. Schedule adjustments need to be made. Emotional adjustments need to be made. The gates are opening and soon we will be passing from the daily course of our lives to the sacred precincts of our souls.

The gates are opening. The shofar is calling you. May you find spiritual nourishment in our worship on this Rosh Hashanah and may the gates of Torah remain open for you long after the holidays pass. Indeed, they are always open for you in the community and in your hearts.

A healthy and a happy