Shabbat B’midbar June 7, 2019

The third book of the Torah - known in Hebrew as B’midbar, ‘in the wilderness’ or ‘in the desert’ - has the English title Numbers, so named because it begins with a census of the Israelite nation. This week’s parashah is four chapters of mainly numbers. Pretty dry stuff to say the least.

I was never very good at math. Algebra confused me. Geometry made no sense, and I avoided calculus at all costs. I have sometimes joked that I went into the rabbinate because after “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” I was done with the math.

But counting - as opposed to math – has always been something I felt deserved serious and sustained attention. And so does our tradition.

Psalm 90 recited at graveside implores God: So teach us to number our days that we may get us a heart of wisdom. In other words, let the stark reminder that our days are not unlimited – numbered – prompt us to make the limited time that we do have really count for something.

We often speak of time as if it were a commodity. We make time. We waste time. We talk of buying or killing time. But Judaism counsels us again and again to sanctify time - by counting it always as precious and seeing in it an opportunity to elevate our lives to something higher, better and good. The whole concept of living in the moment is just another attempt to make every moment count.

And there is more to this counting thing. The story is told of an Eastern European shtetl so small there were only ten Jewish men in residence. These were dedicated individuals, and without fail they gathered together every Shabbat to make the minyan – the required quorum for Sabbath worship. One day a new Jewish family moved to town. There was great joy and excitement. But as soon as they had eleven men, the synagogue could never manage a minyan again.

If we think, when we know that we are indispensible, we make a point of showing up, of being there, of pitching in. And the truth is that when it comes to a congregation, a community, a world we are each and every one of us indispensible.

The tradition counsels us to say, “For my sake, the world was brought into being.” Thus my actions determine if there was value to the very act of creation itself. Make believe if you must, but each and every thing I do is somehow indispensible and essential. There is a unique contribution that only I can make and without my singular contribution, collectively, creation cannot be sustained.

Now back to the Israelite census. Think of it this way. We usually only count things that are precious or important. If you are lucky enough to have sterling silverware, you count the forks and the spoons after every use to make sure you haven’t misplaced any of the pieces. They are too valuable to lose. Rashi on this week’s parashah: Out of awareness of the love of them, God counts each (and every) one of them every hour.

The census data of the Book of Numbers implies something essential and supremely important. In the sight of God and the world, we count - each and every one of us, each in our own way and in our own doings. That means that in the grand scheme of things each one of us is precious, valuable and indispensible to the betterment of humanity. I know it. God knows it. And now, just in case you didn’t know it or needed a reminder, so do you.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat B’chukotai May 31, 2019

There is good news and bad news in this week’s Torah portion. The parashah begins, “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments there will be”…. blessing. That’s the good news. The text continues, “But, if you do not obey My laws and observe My statutes”…..then all hell will break loose against you. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of it. The best news is that both promises are conditional. Blessing or curse – they depend in large part on what we choose to do or not do in this life

I go along with the notion that there are always consequences to our actions, but there is little overt reason to believe that such a mechanistic system of reward and punishment is operating in the universe. As the Psalmist rightly points out at length, the righteous do suffer and the wicked seem to get away with murder. For that reason, the Reform Movement eliminated the second of the traditional three paragraphs of the Shema from our prayerbooks, the passage from the Book of Deuteronomy that posits this automatic do good/get good, do bad/get bad theory of existence. Life really doesn’t work that way, but - while goodness in and of itself carries no automatic guarantee of immediate reward - that has never disqualified it as a worthy goal towards which humanity might strive. That is, it seems, until now.

The International Press is reporting that populist movements around the world are targeting and defaming those they label as “do-gooders.” Here, Salvini rails against the “Buonisti.” Social media in Germany attacks “Dirty leftist do-gooders.” Similar slogans are appearing in Spain, England and Australia. They seek to make the word ‘good’ a pejorative and those who profess to act on its principles enemies of the people. The very concept of goodness itself is under attack.

Rabbinic psychology posits the notion of a yester tov and a yester ha-rah – the inclination to do good and the inclination to do evil. Both exist within us and both are required. The rabbis teach that the yestser ha-rah, however, is a “necessary evil,” for without it no person would have children, build a house or engage in commerce. They were describing what we might call necessary primal energy, and consequently that makes human life a continual struggle between the two yetsers. The antidote, what keeps the yester ha-rah in check is Torah.

In other words, Judaism aspires to fortify and inspire within us the impulse to do good, to incline towards the yetser tov. That would make us a people of ‘do-gooders.’ The traditional translation of the word mitzvah is ‘good deed.’ We are commanded to perform 100 mitzvahs a day. A mensch is a person who does good to and for others.

Foundational to the Judeo-Christian ethic is the assertion that life is a continual choice between good and evil, blessing and curse, and we human beings are always choosing creatures. We read on Yom Kippur from the Book of Deuteronomy: “I set before you this day life and good, death and evil. Choose life if you and your descendents would live.” And in the Books of Micah and Isaiah: “It has been told to you what is good and what the Lord requires of you. Only to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”

It’s not that complicated. The Torah makes it very clear. The opposite of do-gooder is evil-doer and those that reject the very concept of doing good will bring with them only destruction and curse. So I say, Viva i Buonisti! Seek to be counted in their company.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat B’har May 24, 2019

When I was in the Navy, my department head used to speak about ‘the man upstairs.’ At first, I thought he was referring to the commanding officer of our base whose office was one floor above ours. But he was actually talking about THE MAN UPSTAIRS. It was his way of referring to God.

V’yedabayr Adonai el Moshe b’har. The Eternal spoke to Moses from on high, from the mountain top. So begins this week’s torah portion.

Nothing unusual there. The prayer book refers to God asel ram v’nisah - God high and exalted. If anything we would expect that God to speak to us from on-high, from the heavens or the heights, into the great pivotal moments of life, at the birth of a child, on the banks of the Red Sea, in the thunder and lightening of the great natural forces of the world.

But what of the quieter moments? What about  seemingly chance encounters? What of the hushed, ordinary minutes? Does God ever speak to us from on low? Are we being addressed in the day-to-day, in the so easily and often overlooked? 

It is not uncommon when eating something quite delicious to say, “God that was good.” But what if what we are really saying is, “God, thank you for the blessing of something so mouth-wateringly amazing that I can only describe its merits by associating it with You.” I think that’s what the Rabbis was aiming at with the traditional berachah: boray p’re ha-adamah  – Blessed are you, Lord, our God, Ruler of the Universe who brings forth the fruit of the earth.

Living in Italy, I discovered that there is produce of such quality and taste that it can actually convince you that God is speaking to you through a tomato. The Psalmist wrote, “Taste, and know that the Lord is good.” Are we then addressed in each and every mouthful of sustenance that we enjoy?

In English, OMG (Oh my God) is used in electronic correspondence to express low-level astonishment or a confounding, surprising or startling realization. But what if that was literally true and God was speaking in every problem solved, every unexpected little discovery, every joyous insight or meaningful association. That would make such ‘aha’ and ‘wow’ moments -with all the intellectual, aesthetic and emotional pleasure associated with them - a form of divine address. I think that’s what the Rabbis were aiming at with the traditional berachah, shechalak mikevodo,Blessed is the Lord who shares His insight with creation. Are we addressed in every answer or insight that comes to us seemingly from out of the blue?

To hear the Bible tell it, God spoke to Moses in whole paragraphs. To the prophets, God spoke in whole books. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that now God speaks to us but a syllable at a time, in the slow episodic details of everyday living. That would mean that it is only at the end of our life that we can assemble the whole passage and we do that by reading the message of our life in reverse, by looking back at a lifetime of small moments and day-to-day miracles.

I really cannot explain to you how my GPS keeps track of me no less how God might do that for all of creation, but I think Rabbi Heschel got it right. So, pay attention to your life and someday – like Moses - you just might be able to say: And the Lord spoke to me saying.

 Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Emor May 17, 2019

Each Sabbath is given a name, and that name is derived from a word or phrase contained in the opening verse of the week’s Torah portion. So for instance, Shabbat Acharei Mot takes its name from the opening line of Leviticus 16 - acharei mot sh’nai benai aharon - After the death of the two sons of Aaron.

If you take the name of this week’s portion, Emor (Speak) and string it together with the names of the two preceding portions Acharei Mot (After the death) and Kedoshim (Holiness) you get a Hebrew phrase and an insightful Rabbinic aphorism: acharei mot kedoshim emor. Roughly translated: After his/her death we call the person holy.

You might think this is the Rabbinic equivalent of the Latin injunction ‘Speak not ill of the dead.’ On the contrary, more often than not the phrase has an ironic connotation, as when a rabbi will deliver a eulogy describing and attributing virtues to the departed that are unrecognizable to most of those present at the funeral. Acharei mot kedoshim emor. Or as my mother used to say, “I better go look in the casket to see who is in there.” The phrase is a caution not to engage in such extreme revisionist biography.

When a life’s journey comes to an end, the chevrah kaddishah ( the traditional burial society) is tasked to take reverential care of the physical remains of the deceased. The word chevrah kadishah literally means the ‘holy society’, that is to say the group is tasked to perform the holy rites of preparing the body for burial.

Acharei mot kedoshim emor – to speak holiness of the dead on the other hand is to recognize the person in the fullness of his or her humanity, in the truthful remembrance of all that was good and perhaps not-so-good, what was done and left undone, the achievements and the reversals, the successes and stumbles. The phrase is a caution not to white-wash or spin things in order to paint the portrait of saint. To expect or attribute perfection to less than perfect people is perfectly ridiculous at any time but especially at that moment of life called death.

That is not to say that the funeral is the time to work out all the unfinished business in a relationship. Happily the phrase also points to a very human tendency to remember our departed – as the prayerbook puts it - “with faults forgiven and virtues grown large.” Acharei mot kedoshim emor testifies not only to the universal imperfection of humanity but also to humanity’s capacity to both remember and forget. Taken together, these two qualities allow us to put aside imperfection and appreciate one another for the best that we manage to achieve in a lifetime

But why wait until the end to do that? I like to think that acharei mot kedoshim emor is also a reminder to appreciate one another in the present moment - to see in partial achievement and less than perfect performance that which is still good and worthy of compliment. Such a perspective is especially helpful with respect to those to whom we are bound by the closest of familial ties.

In last week’s portion we read v’ahavtah l’reachah kamochah, “love your neighbor as yourself.” The phrase is better translated as “act lovingly to your neighbor,” and there is no more loving gesture than to try to see the best in the others with whom we share our life.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Kedoshim May 10, 2019

The portion begins kedoshim tihiyu, You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy. So God is and the people of Israel ought, should, could, must be or by right are holy – depending on how you translate the verb. The same can be said of the land of Israel.

When I was in the Navy and stationed in Greece, I worked on a base where most people held very high, very sensitive ‘top-secret’ clearances. Accordingly, special permission was required to travel to places or countries deemed to be “of security risk.” In the1970’s, one of those countries was Israel.

When I inherited the collateral duty of monitoring these clearances, I discovered that the Catholic priest attached to our base had, over the years, organized and led numerous trips to Israel but none of the participants had ever requested or received the required authorization to travel. When I brought this lapse to his attention, the priest explained, “Oh, we don’t need them. We’re not going to Israel. We’re going to the Holy Land.” I explained to him that there was a political entity called Israel, and as long as this Jew was the base Security Officer he, too, would have to recognize that reality.

The Hebrew Bible calls the land of Israel admat hakodesh, the Holy Land (Zecehraiah 2:16) and the land is sacred to four of the world’s great religions. All of that is true. However, let us not forget that last Wednesday evening we celebrated the state of Israel’s Independence Day, marking that momentous moment 71 years ago when the modern-day miracle and political entity of Israel was proclaimed.

Today, there are some, perhaps many who still seek to overlook, undo or overturn that reality but thank God, ohd yisrael chai – Israel still lives and for any or all of its shortcomings Israel is the one and only Jewish state on this planet and remains a vibrant liberal democracy at that.

When the Torah ascribes holiness to the land – as I tried to explain in last week’s blog – and calls the land kadosh, it signifies that this particular expanse of real estate has been singled out, set aside for a special relationship. The Bible and Jewish tradition ascribes that relationship as one between God and the physical landscape. Jewish history is testament to the ongoing relationship between the people and its land.

Relationships can be close or distant, positive or negative, intense or indifferent, passionate or detached, strained or sustaining, but if you are in a relationship the connection remains real and constant. And so it has remained for us since the year 70CE.

I for one have never lived without the reality of a Jewish state, and I try never to forget just how much of a blessing that is. On this Shabbat closest to Yom Ha’atzmaut - I and we can, must, should, or by rights ought at least to take a sustained moment to acknowledge with prayerful gratitude our continuing relationship with a holy land and a Jewish state. And while we’re at it, let’s also give thanks for all those who worked to bring the reality of a modern Israel into being. Nor let us forget all those who - in whatever many and diverse ways -labor still to sustain the country through their work, creativity, contribution, service and sacrifice.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Kedoshim 3 May, 2019

Our weekly portion begins with a dazzling, divine call to righteousness. God tells Moses to speak to the whole household of Israel and say: You shall be holy, kdoshim, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Holiness – in Hebrew, kedushah – is a slippery and most misunderstood concept. The Hebrew

suffers from translation. It is a word that in the fullness of what it conveys means ‘set apart,’ ‘singled out,’ ‘separated,’ ‘elevated,’ ‘precious,’ ‘extraordinary.’ It has very little to do with extra-worldly piety or super-religiosity.

So for instance, the Sabbath is a holy day – unlike the other six days of the week - set aside for higher, out of the ordinary activity. “It is first among our scared days,” says the prayer book, “and a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt.”

The word for marriage in Hebrew is kidushin. Of all the souls in creation, the bride and groom have singled out one another and set each other apart for a special relationship the likes of which they will have with none else.

In no way does kedushah convey an arrogant sense of ethical or moral superiority – as in ‘holier than thou.’ The opposite of kadosh is chol. So Pesach, for instance, is a seven-day festival. The first and seventh days are kadosh, the intermediate days are chol – as in chol hamoed - just ‘ordinary,’ ‘work-a-day.’ In English, the two concepts of kodesh and chol are rendered as ‘sacred and profane’ – profane as in bad, as in profanity. But there is no derogatory intention to the word chol in Hebrew. If my actions are not kadosh then they are simply chol.

In Judaism, it is through the performance of mitzvot that we enter into holiness, that we move from chol to kedushah, from the ordinary to the elevated. We say: Blessed are You, Lord our God, ahser kidshanu, who has made us kadosh through the performance of mitzvot. Leviticus 19 begins with a call to holiness and then enumerates some of the most important ways to get there. Check it out. Do not steal. Pursue justice and equity. Love your neighbor as yourself. See to the needs of the poor and the stranger. The list goes on. Each mitzvah is a portal into a different state of being – a doorway so ‘magically” transformative that we often fail to see that we have stepped through it and become something quite different.

So if holiness is something I am directed to be – then kedushah should be best thought of as a state of being. Something I can slip into or out of in the course of a day, a year or a lifetime. Morally, ethically, religiously speaking - I have my better days, my best days and my ordinary days. And when I am having one of my good days then I am mirroring in those mitzvah-moments a quality of elevated, un-ordinary holiness that only God can sustain perpetually.

In Judaism, the essential thing to know about holiness is how to recognize it when you are living it, being it.

And since the study of Torah is an asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav mitzvah, reading this blog you have, for the moment - actually crossed the boundary into holiness. Mazel tov.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Acharei Mot April 26, 2019

With rare exception, go anywhere in the world, go to any synagogue in the world, on any given Sabbath during the year and everyone, everywhere is reading from the same Torah portion.

But not this week and not for several more weeks to come.

Let me explain. According to the Torah, Passover is a seven-day festival. Reform Jews and all Jews in Israel observe it as such following the injunction in the Book of Leviticus. Outside the land of Israel – because the Jewish calendar was originally dependent on the visual observation of the moon – the Rabbis added an extra day to the celebration. So, with the exception of those in Israel, Conservative (Masorti) and Orthodox Jews observe Passover as an eight-day festival.

This year the seventh day of Passover falls on a Friday. So for seven-day-observers, this Saturday is a regular Sabbath and the Torah reading moves to the next portion in sequence; But for eight-day-observers, this Saturday is the last day of Passover and the Torah reading is one selected specially for the festival. The result is that Israeli and Reform congregations will now be one portion ahead of Diaspora Jewry in the reading cycle.

The results of recent elections in Israel have prompted fears of a widening gap between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry, especially American and European Jewry. Like the calendar, we seem to be out of sync with one another in some very important ways. It will remain to be seen what will come of minority rights, issues of religious pluralism, and the protections of fundamental democratic values in Israel - a land that all Jews hold dear. 

But as far as the calendar is concerned, not to worry though. You will recall that in my previous blog post on Tazria-Metsora, I made mention of a number of doubled-up Torah portions – two portions read on a single Shabbat. When the next doubled-up portion comes around, those of us ahead in the reading cycle will separate the two, and - instead of reading them together - it will take us two weeks to do so. By Shavuot we will all be back “on the same page,” and in sync with one another again.

That of course is our hope for Israeli-Diaspora relations. Our mutual love for one another will eventually reconcile whatever might momentarily strain the relationship.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Pesach 19 April 2019

Believe it or not, my earliest Passover memory is one of flies. Hundreds and hundreds of flies. Not the 4th plague recounted in the Haggadah kind of flies, but the real kind.

 

My Grandmother made her traditional Ashkenazic gefilte fish from scratch. She ground the carp and the pike by hand, and boiled the fish balls in a huge blue-enameled pot on the stove. Since I grew up in the South, it was not uncommon for the temperatures to have already reached springtime highs by the time Passover rolled around. So the kitchen windows would be open, and the smell of that seething mass of boiling fish drew every single fly in the neighborhood. I remember the popping sound they made as they bashed against the window screens trying to get into the house. I recall that memory comes each year at this season.

 

But then it all began to change. We got central air-conditioning. So the windows stayed closed. Then the flies didn’t come any more, and when my grandmother eventually entered the nursing home, then she too didn’t come for Passover any more. That’s the thing about memories. They slip away unless you make a conscious effort to hold on to them.

 

Some years ago I thought I would try my hand at making my Grandmother’s gefilte fish using her recipe and her grinder. But David would have none of it. He insisted on the mass produced fish from the Manashevitz jar because that’s what his family always had for Passover. He had a different memory. Different traditions spring from different memories.

 

And in large part, Passover is all about what you remember. Traditional food and rituals. Tastes. Opening the door for Elijah. Reciting the four questions. The first time you aged out of asking the four questions. Celebrants past who are no longer among the living. These are the kind of recollections that make the seder special.

 

If you are choosing or have chosen Judaism, for you Passover is more about creating memories. About  cherishing and experiencing the firsts of your Jewish journey and then holding on to them as precious.

It’s all to the good because, remembering is also the primary mitzvah of this festival.

 

Be it veteran or newcomer - strangely and most importantly - Passover asks you to remember something that never happened to you. You actually were never a slave to Pharaoh in Egypt, although you are supposed to remember that time as if you had been. The Torah commands, Remember the day YOU went forth from Egypt. Elsewhere, “chayav adam lerot et atsmo c’elu hu yatsah me’mitrayeem“ In every generation you are to hold yourself as if you personally experienced the actual Exodus.”  

 

The truth is you cannot do this first-hand kind of remembering if the thing you are supposed to remember never happened to you. But you can live AS IF it had happened to you; which is to say you can live as if you had learned the lessons of that experience. And because you imagine what it was like, you can remember the heart of the stranger because in a way you too were a stranger in the land of Egypt. You do not oppress the poor or subvert the rights of the lowly because you can imagine what it was like when that was done to you - not so long ago in your own remembered past. The Exodus may be a kind of phantom memory of personal oppression and subjugation but you act and live as if it had been a reality from which you  – by the goodness and grace of God – have been liberated. It’s all very confusing, but it works. This memory of oppression and liberation has sustained our people for centuries and just as importantly fostered within us a love of freedom and a commitment to social justice.  

 

So this Passover, remember and make memories happen and then cherish them all for the mysterious and wondrous gifts that they are. 

 

Shabbat shalom and Chag Sameach

Rabbi Whiman



Shabbat Metsora 12 April, 2019

When I was in Rabbinic School, students were required to give a “senior sermon.” Your sermon was based on an assigned Torah portion. Assignments were given out at the beginning of term, and the burning question each September was always, “Who got stuck with Tazria-Metsora this year?

The content of Parashat Tazria-Metsora is challenging. The portion discuses laws of ritual impurity and describes how the priests were to diagnose and treat leprosy, skin disease and other eruptive infections of the body. Not the easiest or most inspiring stuff on which to base a sermon.

Tazria-Metsora is actually a combination of two  parasheot. (portions). I suppose someone figured that it was best to get through this Biblical material as quickly as possible. But given the vagaries of the Jewish calendar, a leap year requires that the two portions be separated and assigned to two successive Sabbaths. 2019 is such a year. So it was ritual impurity last Shabbat and leprosy this one.

Only Parashat Metsora isn’t really about leprosy at all. The Torah isn’t actually describing what the medical profession calls Hansen’s disease. Most probably the confusion came from the translation of the original Hebrew word into Greek and then into English. The Torah and certainly the Rabbis afterwards understood these chapters as prescriptions to deal with the moral contamination of a society. The Talmud and later Jewish preachers saw in the rites of ritual purification a metaphor for spiritual regeneration.

It doesn’t take much to see that the Western world is in a period of crisis. Hatred, fragmentation, mean-spiritedness, vast income inequality. Troubling patterns of individual and societal behavior have emerged. Democratic values are under attack. Compassion, tolerance, honesty are in short supply. The threat to our environment is real. We don’t treat one another very well. Columnist David Brooks writes that years of a hyper-individualistic ego-centered thinking have dissolved the shared moral culture that used to restrain our worst impulses. But “whole societies and cultures can swap bad values for better ones.”

The sages of Israel have long known that it was possible for moral corruption to infect and infest a society, and it was just as possible to diagnose and address that contamination. The prophets of Israel called their people back to the values that elevate and nurture human association and make civilized living possible. As both Micah and Isaiah declared: It has been told to you what is good and what the Lord requires of you. Only to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Whiman

 

Shabbat Sh’mini March 29, 2019

Parashat Sh’mini opens with an account of the investiture of Aaron the High Priest. Aaron instructs the people to bring sacrifices “for this day the Eternal will appear to you.” And Moses instructs Aaron, “This is what you must do that kavod adonai, the glory of the Lord may appear to you.” In this week’s portion Aaron seems quite sure that he can accurately predict the arrival time of the Most High. Moses is confident that he knows the conditions required to make that divine manifestation come to be. 

 

Forty-some years into my profession and the one thing I know for sure is that I have possessed neither of these Biblical talents. It might have boosted my synagogue’s attendance if I had. 

 

Again and again, Leviticus 9 speaks of kavod adonai, variously translated as the presence of God, the glory of God or just plain God. While an exact translation of  kavod adonai is not possible, I think it safe to say that we all pretty much know what the Hebrew is referring to. Because, I believe, at least at some point in every life, we have all had at least one encounter with kavod adonai. 

 

Some have chosen to ignore that encounter. Some to exalt it. Some to rationalize it out of their conscious awareness. Some have a better recollection of the moment than others or perhaps have chosen to make the moment more central to their being. Some talk about the encounter openly and for most others, I suspect, it remains the most private, personal and hidden-away of experiences.  

 

In the Torah, kavod adonaiis usually experienced and accompanied by major Biblical pyrotechnics. Fire flashing forth from the ark. Shouting. People falling on their faces. But it need not be so. When the Prophet Elijah journeys to Mount Sinai, he encounters God not in the earthquake, or the fire or in the thunder but rather in the still small voice, the Hebrew translated also as ‘a voice of gentle stillness.’ I like to think of kavod adonai in sweeter, quieter, calmer ways. My KA moments have certainly been in that idiom.

 

And to those who are envious or insist, as many have to me, that they have never had such a moment of meeting, perhaps this will be a reassuring or very sobering thought. As the casket is lowered into the earth, the rabbi recites:

Go thy way for the Lord has called thee

Go thy way and may the Lord be with thee

May thy righteousness go before thee

V’kavod adonai ya-asfechah

and the Glory of the Lord receive thee. Amen.

 

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Tzav 22 Marzo, 2019

Parashat Tzav continues the catalogue of sacrifices brought by the Israelites to the Ancient Temple. In addition to the burnt, guilt, and sin offerings mandated in Scripture, reference is made to the zevach ha-todah, the offering of Thanksgiving.

The offering of Thanksgiving was a subset of the sacrifice of Wellbeing – the Torah’s way of telling us that gratitude is a pre-requisite or at least an essential component of healthy and purposeful living. There are in fact a number of scientific studies that vindicate just this very proposition. Grateful people it seems have a longer life expectancy of about 7 years.

There is the classic story, though, of the Jewish mother and her young son who were playing by the seashore. Suddenly a huge wave came and took the child out to sea. Terrified the mother called out, “God, save my child!” A second enormous wave came rolling in just then and washed the boy back to shore. The mother looked up into the heavens and said, “He had a hat.”

Giving rise to the question: Are we human beings naturally inclined to gratitude or is the very opposite the case?

I think that Judaism is of two minds on this question. The fact that it is mitzvah, a good deed and a commandment to recite a blessing before you eat is indication of how easily it is to take just about anything and everything for granted.

A Rebbe once asked his disciples, “Do you know the difference between you and me? You say a blessing so you can eat the apple. I eat the apple in order to say the blessing.” In other words, every brachah is either Judaism’s ritualized invitation or mandated subpoena to pause and take note of the blessings you are about to enjoy. I guess it depends on the person.

We Jews take our name and the name of our religion from our ancestor Judah, Yehudah, the fourth son of the Matriarch Leah. We call ourselves yehudim. The name Judah and by extension the word Jew and Judaism are both derived from the Hebrew verb meaning “to give thanks.” ”And Leah conceived and bore a son and declared, ‘This time I will give thanks (odeh) to the Lord. And she called his name (yehudah) Judah.” Gratitude then is a quality encoded into the very core of our Jewish being.

I would like to think that including a sacrifice of Thanksgiving on the list of Levitical offerings was the Torah’s way of acknowledging and anticipating a natural Israelite inclination to express gratitude to God. I would like to think that we too are a people inclined to Thanksgiving, but I know for a fact that gratitude is a quality that must be continually nurtured, appreciated and affirmed. Why? Because grateful people are happier and healthier people, to say nothing of the healthier society they can collectively and purposefully help to build.

I don’t think this turn of a phrase will work in Italian, but TGIF, Thank God It’s Friday.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Vayikira March 15, 2019

With this week’s Torah portion we move into Levitical territory. Annually, the third of the Five Books of Moses presents a challenge to the Biblical commentator - and has ever since the year 70 AD.

With the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans, animal sacrifice passed from the practice of Judaism. There was simply no longer a place to bring the offerings detailed in the Torah. Thus, the first seven or so chapters of Leviticus - sefer vayikra - dealing as they do with the particulars of ritual slaughter remain largely irrelevant to us. What possible application could there be?

Back then, the Ancient Near East could no more conceive of religion without animal sacrifice than we could imagine a faith without prayer, services or holiday observance. Yes, it was a messy business, but - if you were ‘religious’ - sacrifice was just what you did. Still, I am told that there are rabbis in Jerusalem right now who study the laws of the various animal offerings to be ready, just in case the Holy Temple was miraculously rebuilt tomorrow.

While the mechanics have changed, the notion and purpose of ‘sacrifice’ remains with us. We just think about it differently. To sacrifice is to give up something of value in exchange for something of greater value. Today, we give up of our time, our attention, our financial means in the service of something Higher.

The word sacrifice - in Italian and English at least – is derived from the Latin, and literally means ‘to make holy.’ The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban, from the verb ‘to bring close.’ Sacrifices were and still are actions intended to elevate an undertaking to a higher plane and to bring the worshipper closer to the Source of all Being, the God addressed in prayer or ritual.

In the Book of Micah we read: It has been told to you what is good and what the Lord requires of you. Only to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

The first two injunctions are easy to understand, but what about the third? Surely, the phrase is not meant to be taken literally. Our sages equated walking with God to the performance of mitzvot – to performing acts of goodness, kindness and compassion – for these mitzvot foster a sense of partnership with the Divine. Even more they bring us an ‘it makes me feel good’ sense that we are actually taking a step closer to God and moving in the direction of who and what we ought to be.

A passage in the old Gates of Prayer comes to mind. “How I would rejoice to be free of doubts and perplexities, to know in my innermost being that I stand in the presence of the Most High all my days and nights.” It is in the things we choose to make holy – to sacrifice – that we secure that reassurance and fulfill the spiritual purpose of our being.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Pekuday March 8, 2019

The Torah is not a book like any other. It does not follow the conventions of the Western narrative tradition. It tells its stories and makes its points in ways easy to overlook.

This week’s portion Pekuday concludes the reading of the Book of Exodus and records the formal consecration of the Tabernacle. The myriad tasks required to construct the mishkan have been completed. Then, the Torah says: And when Moses saw that the people had performed all the tasks, as the Eternal had commanded, Moses blessed them.

It’s important to note here that the ending of the Book of Exodus mirrors the beginning of the Book of Genesis. The word choices of the second book of the Torah resonate with the word choices of the first. With respect to creation “God (too) saw all that was made…and God (too) blessed.” Critics call this type of literary noticing ‘inter-textuality.’

So Genesis begins with an act of divine creation and Exodus concludes with a work of human creation. The point being the second can be as holy as the first.

Ever since Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, work has been the common lot of humanity. “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread,” says the Torah. But the work we do in this world can be for blessing or for curse. We have the ability to ennoble and improve the world by the tasks we undertake and the causes we support. Our efforts can mirror the highest ethical and moral standards that we Jews call the way of God.

The portion Pekuday does not share with us the exact words of the blessing Moses imparted to the Children of Israel. By rabbinic tradition, however, Moses prayed: May it be God’s will that the Divine Presence rests in the work of your hands.

When the work of our hands promotes peace, understanding, equality, and justice; when the work of our hands helps to show concern for the sick, the aged, the poor, the lonely, the disposed – then indeed it can be said that, like the work undertaken to build the Tabernacle, our efforts too are worthy of blessing as well.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Vayakheil March 1, 2019

Children around the world know the story of the Three Bears – a happy ursine family whose home is invaded by one Goldilocks who manages in short order to wreck the place but good. Trying out the family’s three bowls, three chairs and finally three beds she finds this one too hard, that one too soft and the third one, happily, just right.

Goldilocks was indeed a very fortunate young lady. Because after some experimentation and trial and error she managed to get her reality to match up exactly with her preconceived notion of the desirable, the expected, and the sufficient. Everything turned out ‘just right.’

The story of the Three Bears is not in this week’s Torah portion. Parashat Vayakheil does continue, though, with an account of the building of the Tabernacle. The portion begins with Moses asking the people to contribute gifts for the construction of the sanctuary – gold, silver, precious stones, fine fabrics and the like. God further instructs Moses to accept gifts from any and every person whose heart so moves him or her to bring. And bring the people did, in spades. The Torah tells us that the Israelites continued to bring gifts morning after morning until the artisans finally came to Moses and said. ‘The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks that must be done.’ Consequently, Moses restrained the people from bringing because, as the Torah explains, ham’lahchah hayetah dahyahm, their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks that needed to be done.

It’s the word ‘enough’ that gave rise to the problem of sanctuary over supply. Moses had failed to specify the needed quantity of material for any given category of building material, proving once again that sometimes too much is as bad as too little. And with all the tasks needed for sanctuary construction, it took some doing before the Tabernacle could come out ‘just right.’

Enough is an essential but tricky measure. Since enough is a function of the desirable, the expected and the sufficient ‘enough’ is subject to a wide variety of interpretations. When does a person have enough money, enough time, enough attention, affirmation, acceptance, love or recognition? With regard to these last measures, what can I reasonably expect from others and what can they reasonably expect from me? In other words, what and when is ‘enough’ enough?

Unfortunately, in such matters there is no ‘enoughometer’ to unquestionably gauge ‘correct,’ but I do suspect that - with every attribute or gift we desire - we all hold within ourselves some sense of what constitutes sufficiency. Our tendency , however, is to keep that measure secret, sometimes from ourselves but especially from those closest to us. The better strategy is to make that measure known and to honestly and candidly express our needs to the person or persons we need to provide them. It is unfair to hold others responsible for not giving us what we have never asked for, or similarly to find others guilty of not hearing what we have never said. The incantation “I shouldn’t have to tell you. You should just know” is a formula for disappointment. By the same token, it is unfair, unrealistic, even irresponsible to hold others to a measure of sufficiency that is impossible for them to provide. No one can fill a black hole.

Like Moses with the tabernacle and Goldilocks in the home of the Three Bears, sometimes we get to ‘enough’ only through trial and error or better some back and forth negotiation.

So I will wish you a Shabbat Shalom and Sabbath rest in sufficient measure to strengthen and nourish your soul.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Ki Tisa February 22, 2019

Judaism is a 3000 plus year old faith and our sages have been considering, commenting, and debating its details and meaning for all that time. We inherit a vast treasure of ideas and opinions from those who have gone before. As such, it’s actually very hard for a rabbi to come up with an insight that someone else hasn’t thought up before.

But here’s mine. Or at least in the voluminous storehouse of rabbinic commentary I have never come across this interpretation anywhere else.

This week’s Torah portion relates the story of the Golden Calf. Parashat Ki Tisa is usually taken to be an account of how the Israelites broke faith with God and worshiped an idol made of gold. The portion begins: And when the people saw that Moses was so long on the mountain they went to Aaron and said, Make us (an) elohim to go before us for that man Moses we do not know what has happened to him. The Hebrew word elohim can mean God, gods (as in false or pagan gods) or actually just someone in authority ( as when God says to Moses, ‘Aaron will be your spokesman but you will be an elohim to him)

It could be that the people were just asking Aaron to appoint a temporary leader given Moses’ continuing absence from the Israelite camp. But Aaron misunderstood or better assumed that he understood what the people were asking for. They wanted an elohim, a leader and he thought they wanted an elohim, a new God. Assuming his interpretation of their request was correct and never checking the accuracy of his interpretation Aaron told the people to bring him their gold and the next thing you know events were spiraling out of control.

There is certainly more to the Golden Calf story than my little insight but in part this interpretation warns us to be very cautious when we assume we know with certainty what other people mean or intend by their thoughts, words or deeds. Especially in close family relations, we are prone to think that we KNOW when in actuality there is the real possibility that we are making up a meaning never intended.

The warning signs that we are going down this path are the words ‘obviously’ and ‘clearly’. Obviously she meant… Clearly his intent was…

Be on guard for these signals that alert us to the truth that while we may think we know exactly what others mean or intend, we can always be wrong. Misunderstandings have a nasty habit of escalating, and the next thing you know people are dancing around a golden calf.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Tetzaveh February 15, 2019

This week’s Torah portion describes the elaborate vestments worn by Aaron and the priests when they ministered in the Tabernacle. I don’t suppose it’s all that surprising then that the reading of Parashat Tetzaveh coincides this year with Men’s Fashion Week in Milan.

Aaron’s vestments were a glorious thing to behold, an outer indication of the important role he played in ancient Israelite worship. The breastplate - set with twelve precious stones, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel – though was a sartorial reminder that Aaron acted on behalf of the entire community.

As high priest, Aaron also wore what the Bible calls a holy diadem, a piece of gold on which were engraved the words kadosh l’adonai, holy to the Lord. Surely this adornment was meant to remind the people that Aaron was fulfilling a sacred vocation.

Attached by a blue cord to the headdress, the holy diadem was worn on the forehead, most probably centered between the eyes. Why there?

Positioning the diadem on the forehead would make it highly visible to others, but I have a suspicion that the diadem was deliberately placed where Aaron would not be able to see it.

Power, authority, position – these are necessary but seductively dangerous tools when exercised by human beings. They stand always on the edge of being misused. Power – be it religious, political, economic, organizational or familial – should always be wielded with a healthy measure of humility. I suspect that the personally unobservable placement of the diadem was an admonition to Aaron: Don’t let all this finery and position go to your head.

Power corrupts, especially when and if those in power seek only to stay in power, forgetting and subverting even the holy causes that moved them to seek position in the first place.

Power wielded with arrogance is a deadly cocktail because human beings can and do so often get it wrong. Life can be understood in part, then, as a continual test of how we handle the power and authority we exercise over others. If done with sensitivity, compassion, and a healthy dose of humanity, our actions too may be recognized and understood as “holy to the Lord.”

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Terumah February 8, 2019

The Torah devotes 1 chapter to the creation of the Universe, 3 to the revelation on Mount Sinai and 13 to the particulars of building the Tabernacle, the portable tent-like sanctuary that the Israelites constructed and carried with them throughout their 40 years of desert wanderings. Seems a disproportionate allocation of scriptural space and sacred focus.

And the rabbis tell us that of all the commandments given to Moses, none perplexed him more than the one that leads off this week’s Torah portion, “Make me a mishkan, a sanctuary that I may come and dwell among you.”

The rabbis imagine Moses responding to God: “Lord of the Universe, I don’t get it. Not even the heavens or the highest heavens can contain Your glory, so why do You require a mishkan, a little room 10 x 30 cubits in dimension?” And God answered: “Moses, dear boy, it is not as you reason. The mishkan isn’t for Me. It’s for you. You make the gesture and - as it were – I will contract my Presence and come to abide among you.” That’s why the Tabernacle - and by extension the Temple and the synagogue that follow - hold such important places in Judaism.

But note the word ‘reason’ in the paragraph cited above. Moses and the people probably could have come up with any number of reasons why it was not important to devote time and resources to the mishkan. By the same token, you and I could probably come up with just as many reasons not to get involved in the synagogue. Competing commitments. Crowded calendars. Inconvenience. Family concerns and obligations. Quirky co-religionsists.

The excuses are legion and sometimes even valid. The reasons I don’t celebrate Shabbat, the reasons I don’t come to services, the reasons I don’t volunteer to help out when my community calls.

But like the mishkan, with respect to the synagogue I think God would say: “These things. These gatherings, these holidays, these study groups and meetings. They’re not for me. They’re for you. And putting aside the reasons why not, remember I’m not asking you to match the fullness of My all consuming commitment and concern. You just make the gesture, and – as it were - I will come to dwell among and within you.”

This week’s portion tells us that it took the whole Israelite community bringing their time, their talents, and their gifts to make the mishkan a reality. The same holds true for any and every Jewish community.

As individuals we need only make the gesture. And that is reason enough to do what each and every one of us can and ought to do. Because taken together, these gestures, collectively, ensure that the presence of God will dwell within and among us as well.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Mishpatim February 1, 2018

Eskimos have numerous ways of naming what we refer to in Italian with the single word ‘snow.’ I suppose that is because they have so much of it. Hebrew works the same way. When the Torah directs us to do or to refrain from doing the many, many things enumerated therein, the text uses multiple terms to categorize what we would usually refer to with the single word ‘commandment.’

This week’s portion begins: These are the mishpatim, these are the rules that you shall set before them. Hebrew differentiates between mishpatim (judgments) edut (statutes) and chukim (laws). The translations are inexact, but since there are no exact synonyms in any language it would seem that these three Hebrew words are referring to different things.

The Rabbis explain it this way. Mishpatim refer to laws of social legislation that if they had not been put into the Torah people could or would have thought them up themselves simply on rational grounds. (You shall not steal) Edut would not have been legislated by human means but once established these laws make perfectly good rational sense. (Shabbat rest) Chukim, on the other hand, are laws that transcend our human understanding. (The Red Heifer) In the last case, it would seem that the Rabbis are reminding us that human reason isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Liberal Judaism makes sense. We have enshrined the exercise of reason along with an awareness and acceptance of discoveries in science and archeology and new approaches in philosophy, anthropology and Biblical studies into our religious understanding. But it’s not all about the mind. Human reason can take us only so far. Let’s leave a little room for mystery.

We haven’t figured it all out. As Shakespeare wrote: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.

I have just returned from conducting the wedding of a former congregant in Houston. I had officiated at the bride’s Bat Mitzvah and previously, when she was only 11, at the funeral for her father. Of course, the memory of that sad day and the absence of her ‘daddy’ were keenly felt by all assembled. As the wedding service began, one – and only one - Texas sized rose bud fell from the huppah and hit the floor with an audible thud. The bride took that as a sign that in a way mysterious and beyond all reasonable explanation, her father was still very much with her in that moment. Who is to say otherwise? There are more things in heaven and earth…

We modern, mostly secular minded, reasonable, rational folks would do well to pay careful attention to those seemingly random, serendipitous moments that we all too often dismiss as a fluke but in actuality lie just beyond the border of our rational understanding. They may just be providing us with a little peek behind of the curtain and an intimation of a realm of being far more glorious than we are usually want to consider.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman

Shabbat Yitro January 25, 2019

Parashat Yitro, this week’s Torah portion recounts the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai and God’s direct revelation to the people of Israel. “And God spoke all these words saying…”

Jewish tradition differs on just how much of the Ten Commandments was actually orally conveyed to the people. At some point the Israelites implored Moses, “You speak with us and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die.” The generally held rabbinic teaching is that the Israelites heard only the first two commandments before terror induced them to pull the revelation-al plug.

Moses wanted and fully anticipated that his people would hear not only all ten of the Ten Commandments but the entire Torah as well. But that  was not to be. “Moses, you speak with us and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die.

Was Moses overestimating the strength and character of the people? Did he simply expect too much from them? Or, conversely, had Moses accurately perceived the true spiritual potential of the Israelites, and as their leader wanted only to bring that potential  to the fore. In other words, had Moses accurately recognized in them talents and abilities they were yet to recognize in themselves? 

If you see more deeply into me than I am capable of seeing into myself, who has the better read on the real me? 

The week’s Torah portion takes its name from Yitro, Jethro the father-in-law of Moses. When Jethro enters the Israelite camp he comes upon Moses sitting – from dawn to dusk – arbitrating disputes brought to him by the people. Jethro says: “The thing you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out…for this matter is to heavy for you. You cannot do it alone.” Jethro then counsels a delegation of judicial authority.

Jethro could see the harm Moses was doing both to himself and to the people, even if Moses could not see it himself. Sometimes it takes a person standing outside the circle to accurately perceive what is going on within it. That’s how business consultants and mental health professionals make their living. That’s the value of a true friend and valued counselor. A prisoner cannot free himself.

In the Ethics of the Fathers, Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yehoshua taught: (So) Get yourself a teacher (counselor); acquire for yourself a friend.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Whiman

 

Shabbat Beshalach January 18, 2019

They had witnessed the ten plagues hurled against Egypt, waded through the parted waters of the Red Sea and watched their pursuers drowned in a miraculous deliverance. But only three days journey into the wilderness, at a place called Marah with only bitter water to drink, the people began to murmur against Moses. Not long thereafter they would long for the fleshpots of Egypt and cry out, “Would that we had died in Egypt at the hand of the Lord.”

On the bank of the Red Sea, the people sang praises to God, but not a week into their journey and already they felt free to express their resentment, grievances and displeasure. The Israelites should have been the most grateful, faithful people in the world. How to explain our ancestor’s unflattering and somewhat embarrassing behavior?

Parashat Beshalach tells us that three days journey from the Red Sea the Israelites ‘came to Marah’ - a place that took it’s name from the bitter water found there. The Hebrew word marah means ‘bitterness’ lending the verse to two possible translations. (1) They (the Israelites) came to (a place called) Marah or (2) They (the Israelites) came (to feel) embittered. The Torah’s use of the language is masterful.

The Israelites had endured 400 years of cruel bondage and oppression. The Egyptians had ‘embittered their lives with mortar and brick.’ Yes they had been released from slavery, but why had it taken God so long to act? Why had they been forced to suffer so much? When the exhilarating moment of liberation passed, anger and resentment for all they had endured came right to the surface. 

Bitterness begins with hurt and builds on the emotional pain that follows; and left to fester, that hurt and subsequent anger eventually become the corrosive ulcer that is bitterness. When a person continually rehearses how he or she has been victimized, mistreated or offended, those wrongs eventually come to define some essential part of who the person is. The generation that left Egypt never discarded its slave mentality and carried the burden and bitterness of that identity throughout their wanderings. Obsessed with blaming someone (or something) else for their misery—rather than refusing to permit external hindrances or setbacks from blocking them from pursuing their goal -  prevented the physically liberated Israelites from experiencing the potential joys of living in the freedom of the present.

In Beshalach, God shows Moses how to sweeten the bitterness of Marah by tossing a piece of wood into the brackish water. Nowadays, modern counselors posit forgiveness as the ultimate remedy for those beset by the emotional condition. Forgiveness is never easy, but when a person ‘comes to bitterness’ learning to forgive - with or without loving compassion - facilitates recovery from a wound that, while it may have originated from outside the self, has been kept alive (and even “nurtured”) from within. “And it can hardly be overemphasized that when you decide to forgive a perceived wrongdoer, you do so not so much for them but for you.”

If only our Israelite ancestors had developed a new way of looking at their past by maintaining focus on their evolving present and holding on to the vision of their Promised Land. A lesson many of their descendents would do well to ponder and embrace.

It is hardly possible to build anything if frustration, bitterness, and a mood of helplessness prevail.” Lech Walesa

“Bitterness is like taking poison and hoping your enemy will die.”

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Whiman