Monday, January 28, 2013

February 2, 2013

 Yitro, Exodus 18:1–20:23

Parents Make It To The Top Ten

The placement of the commandment to honor our parents in the midst of the Ten Commandments highlights the complex ways in which parents serve as our bridge between God and the world.

By Rabbi Bradley Artson

Each of us is descended from parents. Without exception, a man and a woman were involved in your inception and birth, and generally in your childhood, teen years and early adulthood as well. How are we to respond to these people; how should we adjust to our own increasing powers of understanding, physical strength and financial ability in the light of the gratitude and respect we owe our parents for the care we received at an earlier age?

Owing Them Honor
That we owe our parents honor and reverence is a 'given' in Jewish tradition. The mitzvah of kibbud av va-em (honoring the father and mother) is the Fifth Commandment of the Aseret Ha-Dib'rot (the Ten Commandments), standing halfway between the first four--dealing with the Jewish relationship with God--and the last five--establishing standards of social morality. That placement speaks of the insight that parents represent a bridge between God and the world, between our own personal drama of Creation and our entry into the world of human interaction and expectation.

The Talmud teaches that three partners are involved in the birth of every person--God, mother and father. One of the roots, then, of our obligation to honor our parents is their role as a pre-eminent source of life. Parents represent God, not only for their role in our inception and birth, but also on a psychological level.

Parents teach, through their raising of children, that the world is reliable and basically good. Each time a mother comforts a screaming baby, each time a father offers a bottle to a hungry infant, the child receives a concrete lesson that they are not abandoned in a meaningless void, that needs are met, that compassion and love are real and potent. In nurturing their children, parents establish the emotional base for a subsequent relationship between their child and the Sacred.

Continue reading.

Monday, January 21, 2013

January 26, 2013

B’shalach, Exodus 13:17–17:16, Shabbat Shirah

When Miracles Are Not Enough

The transformation into a sacred people occurs not through miracles but rather through steady education, discipline and communal reinforcement. 

 By Rabbi Bradley Artson

Surely, this Torah reading contains some of the most dramatic and well-known scenes in all of written literature. The liberation of the Israelite slaves by God, the pursuit of the fleeing Hebrews by Pharaoh and his army, the splitting of the Red Sea, with Israel crossing safely beyond and Pharaoh's forces drowning in the waters--these scenes indelibly shaped the consciousness of the Jewish people throughout our tumultuous history. We are who we are precisely because we recall our origins as a slave people, because so much of Jewish practice is designed to remind us that we owe our freedom to a God of love and justice.
Cornerstone of Jewish Existence?

The story of the liberation from Egypt is the cornerstone of Jewish existence. Or is it? Read the parashah again, and you will find that what is most striking is not the miracles--wondrous as they may be. What is particularly noteworthy is how quickly the Israelite slaves forget about their extraordinary redemption.

Barely did they cross to freedom, when the people complained to Moses and to God. They complained about a lack of water, they complained about a lack of food, and they complained simply about no longer being surrounded by familiar--if hostile--Egypt.

In the words of Midrash Sh'mot Rabbah, "Have you forgotten all the miracles which God performed for you?" Miracles seem to be an ineffective way of inculcating a consciousness of God. In fact, the entire Bible can be read as a book about the consistent inability of God to teach the Jews to be grateful.

First, God tries an idyllic garden. That doesn't work; Adam and Eve disobey anyway. Then God sends a flood. That fails also; people continue to act violently. God then enslaves the Jews, sends a liberator, and redeems them from Egypt. After ten miraculous plagues and a split sea, the Jews still act truculently.

God gives a Torah of instructions--the Jews ignore it. God sends prophets of insight--the Jews rebel against them. The Bible seems to indicate that miracles don't work. People marvel at them while they are in process, and then forget about them the moment they finish.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

January 19, 2013

Bo, Exodus 10:1–13:16

Ready For Renewal

Like the Israelites who left Egypt and faced the terrifying choices of freedom, modern Jews face the challenge of responsibly establishing new guidelines and directions for the Jewish community

Ours is an age of unparalleled uncertainty. While we ransack the past and its accumulated wisdom for guidance today, we also know that the degree of change in every aspect of our lives is without precedent. Groping in the dark, treading uncertainly down a path not previously taken, modern humanity doesn't know its destination and isn't even sure it is enjoying the trip. And we have good cause for our doubts.

Consider the degree of changes that this century alone has witnessed. At the turn of the century, a mere ninety years ago--a single lifetime really--wars were fought using foot soldiers, ships and bullets. Tanks, planes, missiles, nuclear bombs, space satellites, submarines, all of these techniques of killing are new to our time.
Advances in Science

We think nothing of picking up a phone and calling anywhere in the world, we schedule a flight halfway around the globe and get there within hours. We are preceded by the forms we had our office fax, which arrive there with the speed of the spoken word! If we like something we read, we copy it--no big deal. Few type anymore, at least not into typewriters. When I was a freshman in college, only the wealthy students had electric typewriters. Now everybody has their own personal computer.

Advances in science have extended human life almost to its limits, have burned a hole through the ozone layer, have provided us with Agent Orange and penicillin. We now expend great skill and energy to teach developmentally-disabled children, and abandon pregnant teenagers to their own resources.

At the turn of the century, men were secretaries and women stayed at home. Now women are secretaries and no one is at home. Women can vote, and female politicians act just like their male counterparts (surprise!). Men and women no longer have an unwritten code telling them how to act with each other. The divorce rate is at a record high, which just might also mean that unhappy marriages are at a record low.

In every area of human life, we find murky transitions--we don't have the comfortable consensus and social standards that guided our grandparents a hundred years ago. We don't know where we are going, and we're not sure we want to take the trip at all.

That same situation faced Moses and the children of Israel when God commanded them to leave Egypt. Granted, slavery was bad. People suffered terribly from its oppression.The Jews were not allowed to have male children, the work was a great strain. Yet it was also a pattern of life that had endured for four hundred years, something the Jews knew from the inside. There were no surprises, no unpredictable moments.

And then came the offer of freedom, enticing and disruptive. To be free meant being able to choose, and also meant having to choose from a confusing and paralyzing number of options. Life would be more interesting, perhaps, but it would never be as simple.
Where to Worship God

Moses summarized well when he explained to Pharaoh that "we do not know with what we are to worship the Lord until we arrive there." On the surface, he meant that remark to keep Pharaoh in the dark. Ironically, however, Moses himself wasn't sure where they were to worship God. Uncertain of their destination, not knowing what they were to do when they got there, the Jews had to be willing to live with the burden of freedom--the power to make choices and to take responsibility. Ultimately, freedom is the ability to take responsibility for life and its direction.

In our own generation, we face that same crossroads. The traumas and opportunities of modernity can excite and terrify, beckon with the enticements of new possibilities and chasten with complexity and confusion. No matter. The future is ours if we are willing to throw ourselves into the task with our hearts, minds and hands. We can build a vibrant Jewish future, but it will take effort. Support for synagogues, afternoon religious schools, day schools and Jewish universities and seminaries are essential to help us fashion tomorrow's Jewish community.

Equally important is the perspective of the seeking Jew. A willingness to wrestle with difficult questions, with imponderable mysteries and with the marvel of life itself is the prerequisite for spiritual Jewish growth. It takes some courage to enter a synagogue and stay there long enough, week after week, to learn the service. It takes courage to sign up for an adult education class or to meet with a Rabbi. But there is no substitute for bravery. In the words of the great philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (20th century Germany) "The Jewish individual needs nothing but readiness." Are you ready?

Monday, January 7, 2013

January 12, 2013

Bearing Fruit Even In Old Age

The Torah mentions the ages of Moses and Aaron to teach us that age is a source of pride and that by honoring the elderly we bring richness to our own lives.

Most of our lives are darkened by the shadow of aging. We mock the old, laughing at their physical condition, joking about being in wheel chairs, in old age homes, in hospital beds. We associate the old with the incompetent, with a state of permanent boredom and irrelevance. By bleaching our hair, lifting our faces, breasts and calves, sucking off our fat, and dressing in the gaudiest apparel possible, we hope to "stay young" forever.Couple

Our fear of age trails us everywhere, urging middle-aged women to undergo cosmetic surgery and middle-aged men to find a mistress. It whispers to us of "our last chance"--whatever the vice in question. There is a frenzied quality to our recreation, our relationships, and to our acquisition of property, since we expect all of them to ward off the inevitable--death.
Warding Off Death

There is one way to ward off death, but it doesn't lie in the distractions and the stuporifics offered by today's fashion magazines. We can ward off death, prevent its encroachment into the realm of life, only by truly living each and every day, only by refusing to see the elderly as the walking dead, or to view aging as equivalent to dying.

We can put off death by honoring the old among us. Look, for a moment, at how our Jewish tradition speaks of age. In today's Torah portion, Moses and his brother, Aaron, receive God's command to appear before Pharaoh to demand the freedom of the Jews. In what looks like an unnecessary digression, after discussing the conversation between the brothers and God, the Torah records that "Moses was 80 years old and Aaron was 83, when they made their demand on Pharaoh."

Why does the Torah stoop from the drama of statescraft and diplomacy at the highest levels to reveal something so mundane, so irrelevant as the age of these two leaders?

According to Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, this reference to advanced age is unique. "We don't find prophets anywhere else in Scripture for whom the text points out that they prophesied while elderly, except here."

Continue reading.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

January 5, 2013

 Sh'mot, Exodus 1:1–6:1

These Are The Names--Where Is Yours?

By listing the names of Jacob's family members who went into Egypt the Torah reminds us of the number of people who affect our lives and our potential to affect the lives of numerous others.

In many ways, Sefer Sh'mot (the Book of Exodus) is the most Jewish book of the Torah. It begins with the origins of the Jewish People as a nation--newly liberated from Egyptian slavery by the God who created the Universe, led to Mt. Sinai, where that same God established an eternal covenant with the Jewish People.

The Mishkan 

The remainder of Sefer Sh'mot details the content of that covenant in the many mitzvot (commandments) that comprise Jewish practice and then authorizes the building of a place of worship, the Mishkan (Tabernacle) so that God can dwell amidst the Jews.

Sh'mot has it all--a wonderful story of God's saving love, extensive mitzvot so Jews can reciprocate and concretize that love, and a form of worship where both God and Jews can celebrate their relationship together. Why, with all those great details, would Sefer Sh'mot start with a long list of names?

The book begins "These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household..." The narrative proceeds to list each of those children, even though the list already appeared throughout the Book of Genesis.

Lists of Names
In fact, this is not the only place in the Tanakh (Hebrew Scripture) where a long list of names appears. These boring lists are the first to go whenever Reader's Digest or some other user-friendly group tries to streamline the Holy Book! Why, if lists are so boring, would there be so many of them? And why start an otherwise promising book with one? Jewish commentators provided several answers to that problem.

Midrash Sh'mot Rabbah states that listing the names "adds new praise for the 70 souls who are mentioned, indicating that all of them were righteous." Here, listing names is a way of affirming the worth of each individual listed. In a similar vein, that same Midrash equates the importance of the People Israel with the stars in the heavens, noting that the same Hebrew word "Sh'mot" (names) is used to apply to both.

Rashi summarizes these midrashim when he informs us that "even though they were recorded during their lifetimes by their names, the Torah returned and recorded them after their deaths to proclaim how beloved they were." Lists only matter if those listed matter. All of us can remember reading an author's lengthy acknowledgment that stretched over several pages, or can recall enduring a retirement speech or a Bar Mitzvah speech during which a long list of names consumed an endless amount of time. ("I'd like to thank my Uncle Milt and Aunt Esther for flying all the way from Atlanta to be here today.")

For the family involved, and for those whose names were read, the time passed pleasantly and quickly. It was only for those who didn't know the people being thanked that the list seemed excessively long. Certainly when you are singled out for special praise you enjoy having your name listed publicly. Look at all the plaques and dedications which festoon our synagogues, community centers, and federation buildings. Those names are there because the honorees and those who love them care about seeing people who perform good deeds recognized by the community.

In precisely the same way, the long lists of the Torah represent an assertion of human worth. We may not care about every name listed there, but the author of the Torah does and wants us to learn to care as well. Those names teach us that more people are involved in our lives than we care to acknowledge, that we are more deeply imbedded in our society than we will ever know.

Who You Are 

Just think, for a moment, about all the people who have had an effect on who you are today. Your parents, siblings, grandparents, and close family are only a beginning. Include your preschool teachers and classmates. Add the parents of your preschool friends. Then all the teachers and friends in grade school. Don't leave out your favorite TV characters and books. That inclusion means adding the names of many people you don't even know--the authors of those books and the producers of the television shows.

Include those special teachers of your Religious School days, culminating in your Bar/Bat Mitzvah teacher, your childhood rabbi and cantor. In high school, the list broadens to include even more authors and thinkers who influence your life, athletic coaches, drama instructors, art teachers, people who give you summer and afternoon jobs, people who run your summer camp or summer vacations. And of course, your first romantic awakenings. A lengthy roster already, and this one only goes through high school!

You can see that a list of those people who contributed to who you are today would be tremendously long. To other people, your list would also be boring. But each of us cherishes such a private list of gratitude, since that list represents the many facets of our own personality. By insisting that we endure several such lists, the Torah opens us to recalling our own dependency on others, and also spurs us to be such influences for those people whose lives we can touch.

Whose lists are you on? How many lists could you be on that you have simply not bothered with--getting involved with your synagogue, donating blood with the Red Cross, becoming active in teaching religious school, or working with a homeless shelter, a political campaign, or an art festival? There are so many lists waiting to be assembled. All of them have a space available for your name, and only you can place you name where it should be.

We depend on each other to be able to blossom into the best that we can be. Not only as human beings, but as Jews--a small minority wherever we live--the deeds that we do for each other, the energy and insight we give to building a sensitive, caring, and stimulating Jewish community, the ways we demonstrate our love for our fellow Jews and for all humanity, such deeds can bless innumerable lives in unpredictable ways. "These are the names." Where is yours?