Friday, February 17, 2012

Shabbat-O-Gram for Feb. 17

March to Passover

Sign up now for ConTEXT, a month-long exploration of Passovers past and present that we are piloting with the Jewish Theological Seminary.  We're calling it our "March to Passover."  Each of the four classes will focus on how Passover developed at a different point in history, employing JTS's signature approach to teaching, one that bridges the gap between contemporary scholarship and the quest for personal meaning.  The classes, taught by top-notch professors, journey will take us from the biblical Passover to the Seder of rabbinic times.  We'll view the holiday through the prism of Jewish-Christian relations and then, in the fourth session, taught by Dr. Ellen Umansky of Fairfield U, we'll learn how it has been re-imagined in contemporary America.

Our March to Passover will culminate on March 29 with a community Interfaith Seder, co-sponsored by the Interfaith Council of Southwestern CT.  Together with our neighbors of different faiths, we'll sit down and discuss the impact of the Exodus story and Seder ritual on all our lives.  This Seder is an outgrowth of the highly successful Comparative Religions class taught earlier this year by the cantor and myself.  The Seder will be open to the entire community.   See all the info here and sign up for ConTEXT.
Washington's Letter 

In honor of President's Day, read
George Washington's famous 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport."To Bigotry No Sanction..."

"Dung Happens" - a look at this week's portion and Shabbat Shekalim

Rabbi Dardashti will be delivering this Shabbat morning's D'var Torah, and Hank Silverstein next week's (thank you in advance to both), so a few of my own reflections on the weekly portion to set the stage:

Last week's portion of Yitro, you may recall, ended with the bang of God's thunder at Sinai.  This week's portion offers a stunning contrast.  We go from the mystery and cacophony of Sinai to the nitty-gritty of daily life -- the laws of slave and slave holder, the details of petty feuds, of accidental death and injury, the goring ox, the thief in the night.  Mishpatim thrusts us back into the midst of daily life, facing its mundane concerns, and that's where we will stay for most of the rest of the book of Exodus.  Yitro and all the portions before it  describe life lived at the peak a life of cataclysmic events, like the Exodus and Sinai.   Mishpatim is life as it is lived every day.  We add to it the fact that this is Shabbat Shekalim, with the special portion dealing with the most mundane subject imaginable, taxes.  But these are the building blocks that create a just and caring society.

At first glance what we have in Mishpatim looks like an anthology of laws -- but they are best seen as stories told around a fire, or at a card game, or at a local pub.  They are the stories from the back pages of a newspaper.  Did you hear the tragic tale of Joanne, who was pregnant and lost her baby when she accidentally wandered into that fight between Joe and Sam?  And how about what happened to Judah's ox!  It wandered away from the threshing field and fell into that open put that Joshua dug!  So who is going to pay?  And did you hear the latest gossip at the market -- about that guy who lent that other guy a sheep and then one night it died - and whose fault is it anyway?   Stories intertwined with stories -- leading to hours and hours and weeks and weeks of discussion.  These discussions are what became eventually the Talmud.  No portion is a greater argument on behalf of an Oral Law than this one.

And there are principles too: Don't give a false report, don't follow a multitude to do evil; don't oppress a stranger in your midst; don't take a bribe.  But these too are stories, even without the narrative.  We fill in the details.  We imagine the members of the crazed lynch mob that killed Leo Frank in 1915, or the mean kids in a middle school classroom today, each one following the multitudes, each one a living example of what happens when the stranger is oppressed. 
And then there's this week's incident at a Florida airport, where a woman left her $6,500 Rolex watch in a bin while going through security and a man then stole it. Who is ultimately responsible?  The TSA?  The woman? Or the thief? This issue is in fact right out of Mishpatim, which deals with issues of responsibility and compensation.

Mishpatim is a vast painting -- not a landscape, but one of those medieval Bruegel painting, a portrait of all the real people, teeming with life.  What lies behind it all is the Torah's eternal plea for justice, compassion and nobility.

The people described in this portion are not named.  Justice in the end is not about fame, or in some cases, infamy.  God is not in the peak moments of Sinai, Mishpatim seems to be telling us, as in the details of every day life.  God is not in the words of Moses or other great leaders so much as in the stories of the little people and their travails.

And really, God is in both.  It's instructive that if you visit Jerusalem, you can approach the holy Temple in all its grandeur.  Even as an archeological ruin, that grandeur is still palpable.  And yet the entrance to the old city closest to the Temple mount is called, of all things, the Dung Gate.  Even with all the nobility of that exalted spot, the most sacred spot in all of earth, "dung happens."
And dung is good.  Dung is real.  As real as the laws of  Mishpatim.  If God is in all the details of daily life, God is most certainly in the dung.  

Shabbat Shalom!

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