Tuesday, March 27, 2012

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Abigail Bushell on Vayikra

Shabbat Sholom!
 There’s one special, furry member of my family who I wish more than anything could be here today. I’m sure you can guess whom I’m referring to. Yes, it’s my 7 year old black Labrador retriever, Maggie Mooch.
As many of you know, Maggie is a very unique dog. She was bred and trained to be a guide dog, but happily (for me at least) she failed her final exam. She had an undeniable tendency to be interested in anything but her studies, (unlike me of course.)For instance, sometimes when she’s hot, she will just lay down, wherever she is. One time as I was walking her, she lay down smack dab in the middle of Shippan Avenue. She also has a habit of jumping on people and lunging after other dogs. As you can probably imagine, these would not be good qualities for a guide dog.
Even though Maggie’s role nowadays isn’t to save lives, she has sure made my life a lot better and would have done the same as a guide dog, if she hadn’t failed out of guide dog school. But their loss is my gain.
Animals have a way of bringing out the best in people. Even on the worst of days, they help us appreciate the little things in life, like how a lick on the face can brighten your day.
My portion, Vayikra, also talks about animals, although not in a way that I, along with most animal lovers, would appreciate. Back in ancient times our ancestors would bring animals to the priest to sacrifice, almost like they way we would have a barbeque nowadays. The priest would slaughter and cook the animals, and the smell supposedly traveling up to God and the heavens as an offering. After the temple was destroyed, sacrificing was replaced with a much less violent act, prayer, which I approve of.
I can only imagine how hard it was for people back then to give up their companions, even though in those days they were goats and sheep rather than cats and dogs. It can really trigger deep feelings within a person, knowing that we have the power of life and death over our loved ones.
I for one know that I have the power of life and death over Maggie, so I feed her before I even look at my own food. I didn’t realize this until recently, but this is actually an important Jewish custom, a mitzvah. And while Maggie has never saved my life, she has always been there to offer a comforting hug or kiss when I’m upset.
But, there are dogs who do have the power to save a person’s life. These dogs are the ones who actually passed their guide dog exams. My mitzvah project, which is in Maggie’s honor, consisted of raising money to sponsor a guide dog. Not just any guide dog center, you may wonder, but the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind. These dogs are trained in both America and in Israel, but the commands they learn are in Hebrew. So their graduation, is sort of like a bark mitzvah.
         As I become a bat mitzvah, I have come to realize that my job in some ways is to be a seeing eye person, for dogs and other people, and that I also have the power to save lives.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Shabbat-O-Gram for March 24

Shabbat Shalom!

Mazal tov to Abby Bushell, who becomes Bat Mitzvah this Shabbat morning.  Abby's mitzvah project is Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind. These dogs are taught Hebrew and trained to assist disabled vets and other Israelis needing assistance.  See their website and find out how you can send a dog to Hebrew School.  And join us this Shabbat morning to learn more about this fabulous project.  On a week when we read in the Torah about the ritual sacrifice of animals, check out the Jewcology website, which this week put out a superb source sheet on animal rights.  Upload it here.  I've also uploaded recent B'nai Mitzvah speeches by Rachel Fein and Anya Castle and photos from lasts week's family Ellis Island Trip.


Being Better Peoplemussar

This Shabbat has been declared a National Day of Unplugging, a good chance to turn off those demanding electronic devices and reconnect with your most human sideJoin us all weekend long as we take an
introspective journey with Rabbi Ira Stone, learning about the greatest Jewish self-help system ever invented: Mussar.  See all the details here, as we learn how to be more cheerful, patient, humble, giving, loving, tolerant, generous and just all-round better people.  A weekend with Rabbi Stone is guaranteed to enhance all your relationships, or your money back.  Of course, all sessions are free of charge (thanks to the generosity of our sponsors, Penny and Michael Horowitz).


The Israeli Network Comes to Cablevisioncable

Good news!  The Israeli Network is now being offered locally on Cablevision as part of its tier of international channels, at a cost, I hear, of about $15 per month.  At a time when Israel is so often in the news, Cablevision customers will now be able to see Israel's most popular nightly newscast with English subtitles and gain a greater understanding of the complex issues that confront the Jewish state.  Several news and entertainment programs will include subtitles, and others (sports, music) speak in a universal vernacular that all can understand.  Although much of the programming has yet to be subtitled in English, American Jews will be able to engage with Israeli culture in a manner never before so accessible to those not as proficient at Hebrew.  Read more here.
  
"The Hunger Games" and the Ritualized Abuse of ChildrenHunger
  
I've recently become an admirer of "The Hunger Games" phenomenon and went to see the local premier of the film last night - really, early this morning.  In a macabre sense, the release of a film depicting the senseless, ritualized murder of children was timed perfectly for a week where the senseless murder and abuse of children has been a most disturbing reality, in Toulouse, France, among Kony's oppressed legions of Africa and, allegedly, in Sanford, Florida. This is also the week when Jews begin reading the book of Leviticus, which focuses our attention on that now-defunct ritualized killing known as the animal sacrifice system.  
  
In "After Auschwitz," Richard Rubenstein writes: "Sacrifice is the drama of man's hatred of God and his ultimate submission to him ... Men achieve catharsis by symbolically acting out that hatred through ritual violence against the sacrificial victim, without being consciously aware of what they're doing ... In sacrifice, we overcome God, and, at the very same moment, we submit and recognize His inevitable victory....With dramatic force ... the terrible lesson is born in on the community that it has only the choice of controlled, regulated violence or irrational and uncontrolled violence."  He says sacrifices allow us to channel our natural drives toward violence, hatred and subsequent guilt into an organized, contained ritual.
  
The short story "The Lottery" places these urges in a more modern context, as a community brings random, ritualized death on an innocent in order to placate the gods and channel their own destructive inclinations.
  
Several years back, I wrote about channeling violent urges toward children in an article describing the circumcision of my son: No parent should be denied this experience, even vicariously, of inflicting upon his child a ritualized blow so intense as to make him both shake and recoil, yet so controlled that no damage is really done, to signify that this will be the worst the child will ever know from his parent's hand. For it is from the father's hand that Abraham's knife dangles, every moment of every day.
  
So there is something innate in us that seems to crave violence, a drive piqued especially by brutality toward children.  That's why the Torah, before teaching almost any other lessons, makes it clear that God does not desire child sacrifice. Abraham learns that lesson when he binds Isaac to the altar and the Torah explicitly distances itself from Molech worship, which involved the killing of children. 
  
In "The Hunger Games," God takes the form of a totalitarian government ruling what was once called North America - there is no religion, per se - and the leaders of Panem are sadistic in their normalcy. (See a plot summary here) The level of their evil is so banal, so commonplace, as to barely be noticed.  The people's spirits have been beaten to a pulp after 73 years of ritualized child murder, or so we are led to believe. This is what the Third Reich would have looked at had it lasted another half century.  Its leaders no longer strike fear - the President is played by Donald Sutherland, not Ralph Fiennes; the fashions are more bizarre than scary.  No one screams in horror at the prospect of children being thrust into a nationally televised killing field.  No one flinches when the kids are tortured with fire, starvation and genetically altered creatures that would have made Mengele proud.  Only the snarls of the killer dogs sound remotely Nazi.
  
Into this world gone mad lands Katniss, the heroine, whose moral compass was set far from evil's ground zero, the Capitol.  Put in the most extreme situations, Katniss makes all the right moral choices and never let's that madness change her.  She is forced to kill but never murders.  She risks her life to save others, rising above the "Lord of the Flies" jungle into which she has been thrust. In a world where Jews seem to have become extinct, she is a worthy heir to Judaism's most lofty values.  If there are Jews in Panem, we don't them crying out against the evil.  Therefore, there are no Jews.
  
The theater last night was packed mostly with young adults and teens, primarily girls. No surprise, although the books have had much more crossover demographic appeal than the "Twilight" series.  What I liked was how the film's positive moral message was reflected in the behavior of the crowd.  Some wore Katniss pony tails or t-shirts representing the various districts ruled by the Capitol - but there was none of the weirdness of costumes worn at other cult mega-hits.  There was some cheering and hooting at the beginning and the expected oos and aahs at Katniss's first kiss.  But for most of the film, there was silence.  The viewers were rapt - dare I say, reverential, as they watched kids killing kids.  When Cato, the most vicious of Katniss's opponents, met his bloody demise, there were no cheers of the sort you might hear when the Wicked Witch melts or Voldemort is finally overcome.  There is something deeper going on here than a simple victory of good over evil, and the young people present were tapping into that.  I've been to jingoistic political events where adults were far less attuned to the banality of bloodlust.  It made me wonder just how much this group saw Katniss as fighting their fight and bleeding their wounds.  Whatever the reason, this room filled with several hundred young people was as quiet as a cathedral at the end. 
  
There was little reason to cheer.  Katniss is not so much a victor as a survivor.  The evil apparatus remains in place.  The gods of the government will demand the blood of more children next year, as expiation for the sin of rebellion.  The ritualized deaths of the innocent will once again be the price for staying alive.  The controlled, abuse of the young will keep chaos at bay.  The kids seemed to intuit that, to an extent, what they saw on those killing fields of the Capitol goes on around them every day.  Not just in Toulouse or Uganda, but everywhere, everywhere where children become invisible and human life becomes expendable. 
  
In the end, "The Hunger Games" celebrates the indestructibility of the human spirit and the unquenchable thirst for freedom.  Just in time for Passover.
  
  
  
Judaism in a Foxhole: Terror Directed at Jewish InstitutionsFoxhole

Horrified by the attack on the Jewish school in Toulouse, it is natural to wonder whether we are entering a period when Jews will be intimidated from gathering with other Jews.  With Iranian threats and well-publicized security alerts, people might be reluctant to come to synagogue.  Let me explain why we need to resist the temptation to detach.  Several days back, a congregant reminded me of sentiments I expressed a decade ago (written around the time of Sept. 11), words that seem equally appropriate now.    

Just when we thought we could begin to overcome all the negative reasons to be "proud and Jewish," history has conspired to throw us back in a funk. Now, not only does everyone call us terrible things, but also we're afraid to go to our synagogues to discover the more positive truth. The alerts have singled out Jewish places of worship as a possible terrorist target. So how can we find that comfort that we all seek, right here in our sanctuaries?

To that I have but one response: Come here and find out. More than ever, we need you here. We need a Miracle Minyan, not to wallow in our misery, but to lift us from our woes. Yes, we need your presence here to show defiance in the face of terrorist threat, but not merely for that purpose. We need you here to celebrate (and this week we do have lots to celebrate), to partake in the wonder of simply being alive. We need you here to help us all transcend the week that that we have just gone through, and the trying weeks that are sure to come. We need you here - and you need to be here.

So be here, this Friday night and Shabbat morning. Through the horrors we have experienced over the past few years, and in the forecast of an uncertain future, I invite you back to a place of comfort and respite: the synagogue. Come here and you'll quickly discover that Judaism is at its best in a foxhole. Our prayers remind us, now more than ever, that all of life is precarious, and that any semblance of control is illusory. There simply is no excuse for boredom. Angry at God?  Fine. Despondent? Understandable. We'll all be struggling to find meaning in the words we utter. But if you are bored, you're on another planet.

The uncertainties of the moment do test our faith, but the Jewish spirit has always soared highest when put to such a test. Hold a neighbor's hand. Wipe a stranger's tear. His son might be headed toward the front. Her nephew might live in harm's way. Come to think of it, don't we all? Imagine the poets of the prayer book, who endured similar traumas when composing their masterworks. Hear their pleas, amidst the fire, the hated massacres. Hear the bombs. Hear the cries. Here their psalms. And make their words our own.

Then maybe, just perhaps, from the pit of the foxhole, you'll hear yourself praying.
  
Interfaith Seder and Passover Prepsseder

Finally, Passover.  Join us next Thursday for our Interfaith Seder, as we welcome the world to TBE.  We're expecting lots of people.  Read the Interfaith Council's press release and please RSVP so we order enough food.  And here is my updated collection of Passover Guides and Seder Supplements, including a downloadable form for selling of Hametz. 
  
SHABBAT SHALOM! 
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

“The Hunger Games” and the Ritualized Abuse of Children

I've recently become an admirer of "The Hunger Games" phenomenon and went to see the local premier of the film last night – really, early this morning.  In a macabre sense, the release of a film depicting the senseless, ritualized murder of children was timed perfectly for a week where the senseless murder and abuse of children has been a most disturbing reality, in Toulouse, France, among Kony’s oppressed legions of Africa and, allegedly, in Sanford, Florida. This is also the week when Jews begin reading the book of Leviticus, which focuses our attention on that now-defunct ritualized killing known as the animal sacrifice system.  

In “After Auschwitz,” Richard Rubenstein writes: “Sacrifice is the drama of man’s hatred of God and his ultimate submission to him … Men achieve catharsis by symbolically acting out that hatred through ritual violence against the sacrificial victim, without being consciously aware of what they’re doing … In sacrifice, we overcome God, and, at the very same moment, we submit and recognize His inevitable victory….With dramatic force … the terrible lesson is born in on the community that it has only the choice of controlled, regulated violence or irrational and uncontrolled violence.”  He says sacrifices allow us to channel our natural drives toward violence, hatred and subsequent guilt into an organized, contained ritual.

The short story “The Lottery” places these urges in a more modern context, as a community brings random, ritualized death on an innocent in order to placate the gods and channel their own destructive inclinations.

Several years back, I wrote about channeling violent urges toward children in an article describing the circumcision of my son: No parent should be denied this experience, even vicariously, of inflicting upon his child a ritualized blow so intense as to make him both shake and recoil, yet so controlled that no damage is really done, to signify that this will be the worst the child will ever know from his parent's hand. For it is from the father's hand that Abraham's knife dangles, every moment of every day.

So there is something innate in us that seems to crave violence, a drive piqued especially by brutality toward children.  That’s why the Torah, before teaching almost any other lessons, makes it clear that God does not desire child sacrifice.  Abraham learns that lesson when he binds Isaac to the altar and the Torah explicitly distances itself from Molech worship, which involved the killing of children. 

In “The Hunger Games,” God takes the form of a totalitarian government ruling what was once called North America – there is no religion, per se – and the leaders of Panem are sadistic in their normalcy. (See a plot summary here) The level of their evil is so banal, so commonplace, as to barely be noticed.  The people’s spirits have been beaten to a pulp after 73 years of ritualized child murder, or so we are led to believe. This is what the Third Reich would have looked like had it lasted another half century.  Its leaders no longer strike fear – the President is played by Donald Sutherland, not Ralph Fiennes; the fashions are more bizarre than scary.  No one screams in horror at the prospect of children being thrust into a nationally televised killing field.  No one flinches when the kids are tortured with fire, starvation and genetically altered creatures that would have made Mengele proud.  Only the snarls of the killer dogs sound remotely Nazi.

Into this world gone mad lands Katniss, the heroine, whose moral compass was set far from evil’s ground zero, the Capitol.  Put in the most extreme situations, Katniss makes all the right moral choices and never let's that madness change her.  She is forced to kill but never murders.  She risks her life to save others, rising above the “Lord of the Flies” jungle into which she has been thrust. In a world where Jews seem to have become extinct, she is a worthy heir to Judaism's most lofty values.  If there are Jews in Panem, we don’t them crying out against the evil.  Therefore, there are no Jews.

The theater last night was packed mostly with young adults and teens, primarily girls. No surprise, although the books have had much more crossover demographic appeal than the “Twilight” series.  What I liked was how the film’s positive moral message was reflected in the behavior of the crowd.  Some wore Katniss pony tails or t-shirts representing the various districts ruled by the Capitol – but there was none of the weirdness of costumes worn at other cult mega-hits.  There was some cheering and hooting at the beginning and the expected oos and aahs at Katniss’s first kiss.  But for most of the film, there was silence.  The viewers were rapt – dare I say, reverential, as they watched kids killing kids.  When Cato, the most vicious of Katniss’s opponents, met his bloody demise, there were no cheers of the sort you might hear when the Wicked Witch melts or Voldemort is finally overcome.  There is something deeper going on here than a simple victory of good over evil, and the young people present were tapping into that.  I’ve been to jingoistic political events where adults were far less attuned to the banality of bloodlust.  It made me wonder just how much this group saw Katniss as fighting their fight and bleeding their wounds.  Whatever the reason, this room filled with several hundred young people was as quiet as a cathedral at the end. 

There was little reason to cheer.  Katniss is not so much a victor as a survivor.  The evil apparatus remains in place.  The gods of the government will demand the blood of more children next year, as expiation for the sin of rebellion.  The ritualized deaths of the innocent will once again be the price for staying alive.  The controlled, abuse of the young will keep chaos at bay.  The kids seemed to intuit that, to an extent, what they saw on those killing fields of the Capitol goes on around them every day.  Not just in Toulouse or Uganda, but everywhere, everywhere where children become invisible and human life becomes expendable. 

In the end, “The Hunger Games” celebrates the indestructibility of the human spirit and the unquenchable thirst for freedom.  Just in time for Passover.



Thursday, March 22, 2012

Judaism in a Foxhole: Responding to the Horror of Terror Directed at Jewish Institutions

Horrified by the attack on the Jewish school in Toulouse, it is natural to wonder whether we are entering a period when Jews will be intimidated from gathering with other Jews.  With Iranian threats and well-publicized security alerts, people might be reluctant to come to synagogue.  Let me explain why we need to resist the temptation to detach.  Several days back, a congregant reminded me of sentiments I expressed a decade ago (written around the time of Sept. 11), words that seem equally appropriate now.    


Just when we thought we could begin to overcome all the negative reasons to be “proud and Jewish,” history has conspired to throw us back in a funk. Now, not only does everyone call us terrible things, but also we’re afraid to go to our synagogues to discover the more positive truth. The alerts have singled out Jewish places of worship as a possible terrorist target. So how can we find that comfort that we all seek, right here in our sanctuaries? 


To that I have but one response: Come here and find out. More than ever, we need you here. We need a Miracle Minyan, not to wallow in our misery, but to lift us from our woes. Yes, we need your presence here to show defiance in the face of terrorist threat, but not merely for that purpose. We need you here to celebrate (and this week we do have lots to celebrate), to partake in the wonder of simply being alive. We need you here to help us all transcend the week that that we have just gone through, and the trying weeks that are to sure come. We need you here – and you need to be here. 


So be here, this Friday night and Shabbat morning. Through the horrors we have experienced over the past few years, and in the forecast of an uncertain future, I invite you back to a place of comfort and respite: the synagogue. Come here and you’ll quickly discover that Judaism is at its best in a foxhole. Our prayers remind us, now more than ever, that all of life is precarious, and that any semblance of control is illusory. There simply is no excuse for boredom. Angry at God?  Fine. Despondent? Understandable. We’ll all be struggling to find meaning in the words we utter. But if you are bored, you’re on another planet. 


The uncertainties of the moment do test our faith, but the Jewish spirit has always soared highest when put to such a test. Hold a neighbor’s hand. Wipe a stranger’s tear. His son might be headed toward the front. Her nephew might live in harm’s way. Come to think of it, don’t we all? Imagine the poets of the prayer book, who endured similar traumas when composing their masterworks. Hear their pleas, amidst the fire, the hated massacres. Hear the bombs. Hear the cries. Here their psalms. And make their words our own. 


Then maybe, just perhaps, from the pit of the foxhole, you’ll hear yourself praying.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Israeli Network Comes to Cablevision

Good news! As of tomorrow, March 21, The Israeli Network will be offered locally on Cablevision as part of its tier of international channels, at a cost, I hear, of about $15 per month.  At a time when Israel is so often in the news, Cablevision customers will now be able to see Israel's most popular nightly newscast with English subtitles and gain a greater understanding of the complex issues that confront the Jewish state.  Several news and entertainment programs will include subtitles, and others (sports, music) speak in a universal vernacular that all can understand.  Although much of the programming has yet to be subtitled in English (including, understandably, breaking news stories broadcast live) American Jews will be able to engage with Israeli culture in a manner never before so accessible to those not as proficient at Hebrew.  


The Jewish world is about to get much smaller, and the Israeli and American Jewish communities that much closer.  One click and we can go from CNN to Israel's Channel 2 news, without skipping a beat, one minute we can watch Congress in action, the next minute, the Knesset.  Which is the more uncivil?  You decide. 

Even with Israeli news sources easily available online and in print, there is nothing like being able to see events unfold as Israelis see them.  Unfortunately, even in this shrunken world, much of the coverage we see of Israel is one sided and shallow, packaged for maximum impact both by detractors and supporters of the Jewish state.  Complex events are shoehorned to fit a particular narrative.  Now we will be able to allow those events to speak for themselves, and we can see how Israeli experts debate issues crucial to their future - and ours.  We'l see how they debate issues of Jewish identity and destiny as well, how what their political satirists are poking fun at (you'll be amazed), what makes them laugh and what makes Israelis cry.  


For less versed in all things Israeli, T.I.N. provides a great way to learn the language and really connect to the rhythms of Israel time, to see the spring flowers blooming before Passover and feel the sadness of Israel's Memorial Day transitioning instantly to Independence Day celebrations. 


The Israeli Network has been available for some time via the DISH Network, and only recently began expanding to local cable systems.  While the programming lineup is not as extensive as it was several years back and many popular shows are now available online (though none with English subtitles), nothing simulates the thrill of being in Israel than the chance to click the remote and see what Israelis are seeing, when they are seeing it.  Check The Israeli Network's new website to see what is offered.  



Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Jewcology: Animal Rights and Environmentalism

If one has mercy upon living creatures, Heaven will have mercy upon him (Shab. 151b)


Check out the new Jewcology website for a year- long Year of Jewish Learning on the Environment.  Materials from eighteen different Core Teachings topics will be released approximately every 3 weeks between Tu b’Shevat 5772 and Tu b’Shevat 5773.  This week's topic is Animal Welfare, just in time for the portion of Vayikra, where the ancient (and now defunct) sacrificial system is introduced.


They have put together an excellent source sheet on animal rights.  Upload it here.  


While we hope that humans will practice kindness to animals, we often neglect the fact that so many animals practice kindness to humans.  Among those who do are those dogs trained by the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, which happens to be the mitzvah project of this Shabbat's Bat Mitzvah.  These dogs are taught Hebrew and trained to assist disabled vets and other Israelis needing assistance.  See their website and find out how you can send a dog to Hebrew School.  And join us this Shabbat morning to learn more about this fabulous project.
 






TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Rachel Fein on Vayikra

Shabbat Shalom.


This weeks parasha, Vayikra, discusses the everyday rituals that took place in the Temple of ancient Jerusalem. In-fact, most of Sefer Vayikra focuses on the importance of ritual. 


A main aspect of the temple rituals was the giving of korbanot, or sacrifices. They were sacrificed in order to express gratitude and remorse towards god, and different types of korbanot were brought at different times throughout the day. Many years later, the second temple was destroyed, and the Isrilates replaced sacrifices with prayer in order to maintain their connection with God. This shows that communicating with God is a very important part of our everyday rituals, and it is as true today as it was back then. As you can see on the cover of my booklet, there's a talk bubble symbolizing how important communication is to me as well. 


Ritual is also very important because it gives meaning to every moment in life. Aside from the korbanot, the book of Vayikra talks about many other rituals, like Shabbat, holidays, and dietary laws. All of these rituals help us lead lives that are meaningful and organized. I can relate to these daily rituals by the fact that they keep our lives organized – because as many of you know, I’m a very organized person. Anyone who has seen my locker at school or room at home, knows how organized I am. 


 The Cohanim, or priests, were also very concerned about neatness. You may not believe this, but they didn’t just put the sacrifice on the altar; they also cleaned up the ashes afterwards to make sure the altar was ready for the next korban. They understood how important it was to be organized, and they were very meticulous while performing each step of the ritual. 


I had to be meticulous while making 72 candles for my mitzvah project. As many of you know, I sold them at the Stamford JCC on Mitzvah Day. I also volunteered at the Food Bank and donated the $800 we raised. Just as I had to choose the colors and cents, pour the melted wax into molds, and wait for the candles to cool, the ancient Israelites had to pick the right animal, prepare and inspect it, and place it on the altar. Because each candle took hours to make we would make ten at a time, wait for them to cool, and do the exact same thing again. This process became our own ritual, and it took us four days of organized repetition to produce 72 candles. Once the candles were done, we lit a few during the power outage last fall. Just like the sacrifices, they went up in smoke quickly, after all that preparation. 


Also, in the ancient times, God made sure to leave meat to feed the Cohanim after a korban was burned. Similarly, the goal of my mitzvah project was to raise money to feed people who cannot afford food, like the Priests. Now that I am a bat mitzvah, I’ve come to understand, the importance of ritual and communicating with God in order to keep my life organized.

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Anya Castle on Beshallach

When I began to study my portion, something amazing occurred to me- the story, is all about me!


Today is called Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of the song. And the song that this Sabbath is all about is called the song of Miriam. My middle name in both Hebrew and English is, you guessed it, Miriam! And not only that, but we both love to sing and dance, Miriam and I. 


When Miriam led the people in song, she also led the women in dance. I used to take dance class, but soon learned that big feet aren’t that good for it. But I bet that if I had been at the Red Sea with Miriam, I would have danced too. 


 So I began to think about this hidden connection I have with Miriam. As I learned more about her, it became clearer to me that we have more in common than just our names and the fact that we love to sing and dance. 


For one thing, Miriam was a great leader. Now, I don’t consider myself a great leader… yet, but I am president of the Builders Club, the main fundraising arm of my school. For my Mitzvah project, the Builders Club and I are going to collect change in a jar from the students at my school to donate to Pennies for Patients. Even more than a leader, Miriam was a care-giver. She protected Moses when he floated down the Nile, and made sure that he would be brought up properly by the Pharaoh’s daughter, with help from their mother, Yocheved. 


Later, when in the wilderness and they were thirsty, according to legend, a well miraculously appeared and gave water to the people through their journey. The well was called Miriam’s well, because she cared so much for the people and the well dried up when Miriam died. Like Miriam, I also want to devote my life to caring for others. I want to be an oncologist, partly because of what I went through this past year, when I had to be treated for a rare type of skin cancer. Thankfully I am totally okay now. But as I was going through the treatments, I learned that caregiving is more than just providing medical care, it’s about caring for another person. In Jewish tradition, a patient should be seen first and foremost, as a human being. 


 As a leader and a caregiver, it will be hard to live up to the example of my namesake, but as I become a Bat Mitzvah today, I know that I will always look to Miriam as the perfect role model.

Photos from Ellis Island Trip

2012 Ellis Island Trip
Click to see photos from our family trip to Ellis Island and the Jewish Heritage Museum. Check back for more pics!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Sayings of the Jewish Buddha

From the Jewish Meditation Center of Brooklyn


SAYINGS OF THE JEWISH BUDDHA 


If there is no self, whose arthritis is this? 


 Be here now. Be someplace else later. Is that so complicated? 


Drink tea and nourish life; with the first sip, joy; with the second sip, satisfaction; with the third sip, peace; with the fourth, a Danish. 


Wherever you go, there you are. Your luggage is another story. 


 Accept misfortune as a blessing. Do not wish for perfect health, or a life without problems. What would you talk about? 


The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single Oy. 


There is no escaping karma. In a previous life, you never called, you never wrote, you never visited. And whose fault was that? 


Zen is not easy. It takes effort to attain nothingness. And then what do you have? Bupkis. 


The Tao does not speak. The Tao does not blame. The Tao does not take sides. The Tao has no expectations. The Tao demands nothing of others. The Tao is not Jewish. 


Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Forget this and attaining Enlightenment will be the least of your problems. 


Let your mind be as a floating cloud. Let your stillness be as a wooded glen. And sit up straight. You'll never meet the Buddha with such rounded shoulders. 


Deep inside you are ten thousand flowers. Each flower blossoms ten thousand times. Each blossom has ten thousand petals. You might want to see a specialist. 


Be aware of your body. Be aware of your perceptions. Keep in mind that not every physical sensation is a symptom of a terminal illness. The Torah says, Love your neighbor as yourself. The Buddha says, There is no self. So, maybe we're off the hook.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Jewish and Irish, Goldman Sachs and Passover Prep Shabbat-O-Gram


AND HAPPY ST PATRICK'S DAY TO ALL IRISH JEWS OUT THERE.  See also this article, "On St Patrick's Day, the Rabbi Wears Green."  This Sunday I'm looking forward to joining a busload of our Religious School families at Ellis Island and the Jewish Heritage Museum. I'm sure we'll see much of where the Jewish and Irish experiences have overlapped here on American soil.  We have so much in common - after all, both Jewish and Irish end in "ish." In Hebrew, "ish" means human.  What we share is the entirety of the human experience, with all the passion and the pain.    
  

Mazal tov to Rachel Fein and family, as Rachel becomes Bat Mitzvah on Shabbat afternoon.  Join us tonight for services at 7:30, where we'll be hearing from TBE BCDS 8thgraders who have just come back from Israel.  We'll be honoring all our day school students at a dinner prior to the service.  Tomorrow morning we'll discuss an ancient ritual, the only sacrifice we still perform, which has generated legend and lore. See this week's Parsha Packet for a preview.  Tomorrow is also a "Torah for Tots" day - bring your young kids to the triple classroom at 11:15 for that always-enjoyable service.

Being Better People
Mark your calendars for next weekend's Scholar in Residence appearance - see details here.The topic, "Being Better People" is certainly one that is relevant to all of us.  Using the tools of "Mussar," a force for Jewish renewal and self improvement, we can learn how to cultivate character traits like patience, honesty, humility and cheerfulness.  Rabbi Ira Stone will speak three times during Shabbat, including a cozy Havdalah program on Saturday evening, and he'll lead a workshop on Sunday morning as well.

Another can't miss event we have coming up is the Interfaith Seder on March 29.  Join us as we host congregants and clergy from diverse faiths, as we discuss the impact of the impact of the Exodus story and the Passover ritual on our lives a on our lives and on the world. Read all the details here.

The Gordon Gekko Haggadah
Speaking of "Being Better People," the business world is abuzz this week about the New York Times op-ed by former Goldman Sachs employee Greg Smith, who bemoaned a continuing culture of greed, where the client is a tool to be shaken down rather than a valued customer, and where the almighty buck still reigns supreme. "It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off," he wrote.

I don't know the particulars of Greg Smith's case or the goings on at Goldman, but his indictment of the culture is one all of us should take seriously.  It is so easy to slide back into bad habits. We focus on teshuvah during the High Holiday season, but that isn't enough. Things happen over the course of a year to dilute the impact of that intense self-scrutiny.   That's why Judaism presents us with a chance for a mid-course correction: Passover, which occurs precisely half way through the Jewish year.  We deflate our egos by flattening our diet.

Hamatz is often associated with idolatry, the worship the tangible and finite, the adulation of fame and fortune, the exaltation of the ego.  A verse in last week's portion makes the connection between leaven and idolatry explictly clear: "Do not make molten idols; observe the holiday of matzot." (Exodus 34:17-18).  Matzah is God-food.  It is food for thought, sustenance for the spirit.

As Rabbi Jill Jacobs writes, "Hametz represents an attachment to what is-to the world as it appears to our five senses. Those stuck in the world of hametz may find themselves drawn to idol worship-that is, the assumption that the world as we see it is all that is possible. Matzah, on the other hand, represents the ability to imagine a world beyond the tangible one."

We've not yet even climbed out of the mess of 2008 yet in many offices, it's business as usual.  It's as if 2008 never happened.  Are we doomed to have to bear endless cycles of corruption leading to even greater meltdowns?  I hope not.  We've learned so many harsh lessons over the past several years; one would think something would have sunk in.

There are 4,000 haggadahs in print, but one more desperately needs to be written: a haggadah where the part of Pharaoh is played by Gordon Gekko. The liberation we pray for and work toward is not merely one from external oppression - but a liberation from our own greed.

I'd like to encourage a continuing conversation on this matter, and I'm willing to meet you onyour turf in order to do it.  If the people in your office are interested in a seminar on Jewish business ethics, I'll be there.  Wherever you work, in Stamford, Manhattan, Bangalore or the Canary Islands (I'd especially like that), I'll be happy to teach.  One session or a series.  This is really not about Greg Smith and Goldman Sachs.  It's about the integrity of our economy and the sustenance of our national soul.
 
Passover's coming
See my extensive Passover Guides and Seder Supplements
-- Click here for the downloadable 2012 Rabbinical Assembly Passover Guide.
-- Click here for my "Passover Preparations Guide to the Perplexed"
-- And here for the 2012 Sale of Hametz form
-- And here for Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner's Seder supplement chock full of those silly songs and explanations everyone loves.
 
And while our Purim memories are still fresh, check out our photos from the service and carnival.
  

Scholar in Residence Weekend: Being Better People - the Path of Mussar

Parsha Packet for Pekuday - What is Show Bread - and Why?

See this week's Parsha Packet on the Show Bread and find out why this ancient ritual, the only sacrifice we still perform, has generated legend and lore.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Reflections on AIPAC 2012









Reflections on AIPAC

It has been a couple of days now since my return from the AIPAC conference in Washington.  There have been scores of instant analyses written, so there is little I could have added to the initial avalanche, so I’ve allowed my impressions to marinate a bit.  I’ve assembled videos of the main plenary speeches and events here.  My bottom line impression is that the world is a safer place today than it was a week ago.  There will be nervous times ahead, but I believe that an attack on Iran, with all then unknown consequences, is less likely to occur soon and more likely to be done by American forces than Israelis if and when it happens.


Politics and Stagecraft

It is impossible to have been among the 14,000 present and not feel that we were part of a significant historical moment.  We felt this despite the distractions of an exceptionally combative political season.  While AIPAC steadfastly maintains a bipartisan stance, the speeches were anything but that. With the stakes so high in this new world of Super Pacs, where the US approach to Iran has become the prime foreign policy issue of the campaign and where the Obama-Netanyahu relationship has been watched more closely than Pitt-Jolie, it was natural that this would occur.  Natural, but unfortunate – because for this grand exercise in stagecraft to be most effective, the Iranian government had to be convinced that the US and Israel are in lockstep in coordinating a potential military response and dead serious about using force, if necessary.  Much of that message came through, but the partisan bickering diluted it. 

Fortunately, the President and Prime Minister managed to shift the conversation away from their relationship and onto the rock-solid alliance between their countries. They are on the same page regarding several crucial issues: 1) containment of a nuclear Iran is not an option; 2) Israel has the right to defend itself on its own timetable; 3) Crippling sanctions are damaging the Iranian economy significantly (Iran’s currency is down 75% over the past month), and the impact will be felt most fully this summer, and 4) both nations are prepared to use military force if sanctions and diplomacy fail.  It is clearer now that Israel would not be impeded if it felt it were time to strike.  And if Iran passes a certain threshold of uranium enrichment and their intent to build a bomb becomes clear, US military action would likely be forthcoming and would be overwhelmingly endorsed by the Congress.  The President would act, if needed, both because he believes that a nuclear armed Iran is unacceptable and because Congress would give him all the war powers he needs, perhaps even before the final decision to attack is made.

Paradoxically, the hawkish tenor of the conference will make a military strike less likely.  It was that thought, and that alone, that enabled me to overcome my deep concerns about the bellicose mood that prevailed in the hall.  Not everyone present was Jewish – far from it – but I’ve ever been among so many Jews so gung ho for a fight.   I see little hope for negotiation, but I also know that wars rarely go according to plan, and no one should be glib about an operation so complex as this one would be.  On the other hand, I came out of the conference more confident that America does have the necessary firepower to do the job and that a few days of “shock and awe” might suffice in ending the Iranian nuclear threat for the foreseeable future.  This would be a much more limited operation than was needed in Iraq and Afghanistan, with few boots on the ground and presumably resulting in far fewer grieving mothers back home.  Israel and the US would undoubtedly face retaliation.  It’s encouraging, as Senator Lieberman informed our lobbying delegation, that when Obama and Netanyahu met, their security advisors were in the room. Presumably a number of contingencies were discussed. 

It is noteworthy that despite the solid backing of Congress for potential military action, our reps admit that the American people are war weary, and a poll released today indicates that most Israelis would also prefer to avoid a strike on Iran as well.  Few of the 14,000 at AIPAC who were cheering the tough rhetoric would have to be among those risking their lives in jet fighters over Qom or in the bomb shelters of Haifa.
                                                                                                                                                   
I just hope the Iranians were impressed by the drumbeat.  Early signs indicate that they might have been.  I don’t think they were counting on having to fend off a US attack.  As of today, The Atlantic’s new “war clock” puts us at ten minutes to midnight.  That rounds out to a matter of months, with the prevailing expectation being that Israel would attack.  But in Israel, as Marc Shulman reports, the estimate is that Obama outflanked Netanyahu with his pledge of a US attack when/if the time is right.   Let’s hope that as result of the bellicosity of this week’s conference, we’ll be able to set the hands back even more over the coming weeks, for all the right reasons.

AIPAC usually focuses on three “talking point” items in sending its lobbyists off to Capitol Hill.  This year, the conference was all-Iran, all the time. Despite the contentiousness of the season, the speakers stayed on message.  Message delivered.  The stagecraft was very effective. 



Auschwitz and Jewish Power

I’ve heard the Prime Minister speak to American audiences on numerous occasions and rarely has he failed to bring up the Holocaust (much to the chagrin of his Kadima counterpart, Tzipi Livni). This is not stagecraft.  He really means it.  His world view, inherited from his father and his party’s revisionist roots, is decidedly Auschwitz-centric.  He typically brings up Neville Chamberlain and Munich when explaining why he won’t make deals that in he feels endanger Israeli security.  On Monday he took another tack, reading from a letter he keeps in his desk, a desperate appeal from leaders of the World Jewish Congress to the Americans to bomb Auschwitz in 1944.  The request was refused, in part because “Such an effort might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans.”  Netanyahu was incredulous that anything could be perceived as more vindictive than the Holocaust.  One implication was that no one should worry about how Iran would respond to a strike.  But the other implication was that never again will the Jewish people outsource its self defense to any other nation, that Israel can’t just trust America to “have its back.”  American had, after all, failed the Jewish people back in the ‘40s.

That analogy is dangerously isolationist.  Even when facing an existential threat – which this is – Israel can’t just go it alone.  When Israel was in mortal danger after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, only an emergency infusion of American arms saved her.  Yes, Israel did not depend on others to put boots on the ground, but the planes Israelis flew were American.  Netanyahu knows that Israel made the right decision to let American and coalition troops do the fighting in the Gulf War of 1992, even as Israel absorbed 39 Scuds, any of which could have contained nerve gas.  Without America fighting for Israel on the diplomatic front last fall at the UN, there would be a Palestinian state right now, against Israel’s wishes. 

I heard UN Ambassador Susan Rice deliver an extraordinarily moving speech on Monday to 400 rabbis and cantors of all denominations.  Read about it here and see a transcript here  (and click for Audio and transcript of her Q and A with the Rabbinical Assembly).  She said, “What Israel faces is relentless, it's obsessive, it's ugly, it's bad for the United Nations, it's bad for peace -- and it has got to stop….Not a day goes by -- not one -- when my colleagues and I do not work hard to defend Israel's security and legitimacy at the United Nations."   As Rice concluded her presentation, stating, “Human conflict and human suffering can only be overcome by human courage,” a courage she has amply demonstrated, everyone rose in applause and we began singing a verse from Psalms that she had quoted (in perfect Hebrew, I must add), “Hinay Mah Tov Uma Na’im, Shevet Achim Gam Yachad,” “How pleasant it is when siblings can dwell together in peace.”  For me it was the most life-affirming moment of the conference.  She said that although the UN is still problematic, things are changing.  Did you know that Israel is joining the board of UNICEF this year?  With people like Rice doing the grunt work of diplomacy every day, there can be no doubt that America – and this Administration - has Israel’s back.

Both Obama and Netanyahu stated explicitly that Israel has the right to defend itself on its own terms.  But a worldwide coalition is building against Iran and its proxy, Syria.  Israel’s security needs have never been more supported by so wide an array of nations.  The entire world has even back-burnered the Palestinian cause, barely mentioned at all at AIPAC, because the Iran and Syria need to be handled first.  Eliminating the Iranian nuclear threat would change the region irrevocably, and, if this coalition can be nurtured and this crisis managed with US diplomatic leadership, for the better.

The Auschwitz analogy was very powerful.  I usually cringe when people make such comparison.  It trivializes the enormity of the Holocaust to overuse it in order to score debating points. But when Netanyahu waved that letter, I realized that I was standing at a true turning point for Israel and the world.  Israel has faced three prior moments where its survival was truly in question: in 1948, in May of 1967 and during those first days of the 1973 war.  Now we can add March 2012. 

I can recall 1967 and, more clearly, 1973.  I also know that in 1991, when those first Scuds fell and we didn’t know what they contained, there was real fear for Israel’s future.   We also despaired during the worst of the terror wave in the early 2000s.

But there is a difference between this crisis and all the others.  This time the American President and his three potential opponents, the Secretary of Defense and other cabinet members, the vast majority of the House and Senate and a gaggle of influential, wealthy and powerful people all congregated in one place to declare their devotion to the Jewish state.  No other cause unites so many, and, as AIPAC will always remind us, it’s for the right reasons.  The interests and values of the two nations are completely aligned. 

Not even Mordechai was shown such love by the rulers of his nation.  Never in Jewish history has this happened.  The love is real.  I attended sessions with Israeli leaders (including the celebrated news anchor-turned politician Yair Lapid), and they love America.  I attended a session featuring Christian Evangelical leaders and they truly love Israel.  It was a fascinating session, BTW - the dialogue got into sensitive areas of end-time theology and the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, but there is no disputing that the panelists desire a renewed friendship with the Jewish people, one based on mutual respect.  “We ask forgiveness,” one pastor of a large Georgia congregation said, adding that “bad theology breeds fear and arrogance.”  “The Jewish people are God’s people,” said another minister, “and God never changes His mind.”

The love is real, but I cannot help but think that the fealty among politicians is inflated because of fund raising.  An interesting byproduct of this year of the Super Pac is that candidates are desperate for money from affluent sources – which led them right to the Convention Center this week.  Rick Santorum even appeared in the flesh – on Super Tuesday.  Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich appeared via live satellite feed.  AIPAC is not an inexpensive conference to attend; for that and a variety of other reasons, the crowd skewed wealthy, younger and to the right of the Jewish population as a whole.  There were far more visiting the Republican post gala reception than in the Democrats’ tent (these events were literally in tents).  That has been the case in prior years as well, so it is not an indication of any dramatic demographic shifts in Jewish party allegiances.  As long as AIPAC can keep Israel from becoming a wedge issue between the parties, candidates will continue to come there showing us the love, having consumed the pro-Israel Kool Aid.

This is decidedly NOT the world that confronted the American Jewish Congress when its leaders wrote their desperate letter in 1944. Israel has lots of friends in America, people who genuinely recognize that an Iranian bomb is not in America’s interest, and internationally, the anti-Iran coalition is strong and growing.  While for Israel this is most definitely an existential crisis, it is also an enormous opportunity.  For that reason, I left Washington hopeful. 

At one breakout session, an Israeli journalist told a classic joke from the early days of the state.  A guy came up to Ben Gurion and told him, “If you implement my idea, you will solve all of Israel’s problems in five minutes.”  The Prime Minister was curious, knowing all the growing pains Israel was dealing with.  So he asked what the idea was.

“All you have to do is declare war on America. America will conquer us and we’ll become the 51st state.  No more security problems.  No more political craziness – we’ll have two senators and we’ll send them to Washington.  No more financial problems – our currency will be the dollar.  Maccabi Tel Aviv will play in the NBA. Tel Aviv – New York will be a domestic flight!”

“It’s a very good idea,” Ben Gurion responded.  “But what happens if, God forbid, we win the war?”

Israel’s raison d’ĂȘtre was Never Again to allow Jews to be at the mercy of other nations, never to outsource its ability to defend itself.  But FDR never told the Jewish people he had our back.  It would be a tragic mistake, I fear, if Netanyahu were to elect to go it alone simply because of these Auschwitz nightmares.  If the cool calculations of his military and intelligence experts agree with him, that’s one thing, but we’ve left the world of that World Jewish Congress letter far behind us.  I pray that Never Again will such a desperate letter need to be written.


New Paradigms

I left D.C. feeling that we are entering a very different era, where old paradigms just don’t work.  Just as the “Jew as victim” paradigm championed by Netanyahu rings hollow when displayed against the backdrop of the conference, so do other paradigms no longer hold true.  For example, the Arab Spring has demolished all preconceived myths about the peoples of the Middle East.  As one panelist put it, the people are transitioning from subject to citizen.  We don’t know where that will lead, but it’s hard to imagine them returning to being passive subjects, certainly not in Syria, where the Assad fall is now being universally deemed inevitable.  The Muslim Brotherhood may be strong in Egypt, but few believe they will scuttle the peace treaty with Israel, and it is unlikely that they will gain strength in Syria, which, according to panelist and journalist Ehud Ya’ari, is 40% minority (including many Christians and Druze).   (Ya’ari, one of Israel’s most respected journalists, also reported that Iran is at least a year away from a testable nuclear weapon and two years away from a missile.)  The Arab world now consists of governments that can’t afford to divert their people’s attention to a common scapegoat like Israel.  They actually have to make people’s lives better.  One positive model is Yemen, where a political transition is occurring; the former leader has been given asylum elsewhere and American drones are keeping Al Qaeda at bay.

It’s time for Jews to create new paradigms as well and stop taking shots at organizations or people they don’t agree with, flinging epithets like “anti-Israel” or “Israel firster.”  We need to get beyond the labels and see issues clearly, not through the lens of ancient history and ideological animosities.  I’m as critical of the Likud government as anyone on issues of civil rights, religious freedom, women’s rights and negotiation strategies with the Palestinians (it was amusing – and telling – that the Prime Minister, burned by recent negative headlines,  ended his speech with a shout out for women’s rights).   But I don’t let my concerns cloud my view regarding the dangers of Iran.  At some point, this crisis will pass, maybe a new dynamic will be set in motion in a realigned region, and then maybe the Palestinians will return to the table. At that time, and I hope it’s soon, we’ll need to get back to serious negotiations on settlements, borders, security, rights of return and Jerusalem.   I’m concerned that some on the left have become such knee-jerk opponents of all things Netanyahu that they can’t see the urgency of the current existential threat.  And I’m equally concerned that some on the right have such a knee-jerk hatred of Obama that they refuse to acknowledge that the Israel-America relationship has never been more secure.

One final comment 

The conference was extraordinarily staged, right down to the last detail. They served Chinese food at our clergy luncheon, and my fortune cookie informed me, “You will attend AIPAC Policy Conference 2013.”  But in fact one got the sense that that the appearance of control was a grand illusion.  I’m not talking about the fact that there were mess ups with the food or some sessions went long, or Liz Cheney setting the tone by beginning the opening session with a most inflammatory attack on the President. No, I’m talking about the rumble and the roar.  Every so often I heard a rumble under our feet and a roar overhead.  Most likely the rumble was the Metro and the roar just a hovering helicopter.  But given the extraordinary degree of power concentrated in this hall at any given time, it gave me pause to imagine how easily all this could come crashing down.  There is nothing in the Jewish world so controlled as an AIPAC Policy Conference.  But not even that is immune to a world that perplexes us and confounds us daily. 

That said, for the moment, the skies are clearing and the cherry blossoms are beginning to bud.  Washington looks as lovely as ever.  And the US-Israel relationship has never looked better.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Addendum - As an interesting postscript, see JJ Goldberg's reaction to the 60 Minutes interview with Meir Dagan , former head of the Mossad.  He sets the clock back to up to 3 years for Iran to get the bomb, and evidently he is in not alone among Israeli intelligence experts in trying to convince Israeli leaders not to strike prematurely.  The success of the Iron Dome defense system in intercepting missiles from Gaza this week as an added factor to consider.  As Israel gains more expertise in such defenses of longer and short range missiles, it gives them a strategic advantage - though it in no way makes an Iranian bomb containable or acceptable. I do think that this week's flare up in Gaza has both given Israel more confidence but also shown them once again, how disruptive even a limited missile attack can be.  Attack Iran, and they would have to bear much more, mostly in the north, which may not yet be as prepared with missile defenses.  In a year or two, they will be better prepared.