Waiting for the Supreme Court

Please read this Psalm as written by Rabbi Eleanor Steinman in her capacity as Executive Director of California Faith for Equality.   This is a wonderful Psalm for waiting for a decision on the Supreme Court rulings on Prop 8 and DOMA.  Prayer can be helpful. I urge you to add this to your daily meditation and prayer life. And by the way make a donation to CFE, California Faith for Equality for all the work they are doing to educate and change hearts and minds in the interfaith religious world on LGBTQI issues!   Donate here.

 

Four Spiritual Lessons Learned from the 2012 Presidential Election

As a rabbi I think that there are profound spiritual lessons to be learned from this election season.  The Torah and Bible have long standing advice that we ought to apply in the wake of this bitter election. Although President Obama was re-elected our country remains deeply divided. Here are some things that we ought to reflect upon and heed the lessons we have learned as a country.

  1. There is a reason that “Thou shalt not lie” is in the Ten Commandments.  More than ever before we saw the shadings of truth and the outright lies take over the campaigns.  Often fueled by special interests, the truth, whether it is about Obama’s birth place or Romney’s religious beliefs, was often absent.  We learn from this lies have no place in our elections, politics or world.
  2. Like the Hebrew Bible teaches, Americans are created in the image of God—ok well not just Americans; humanity is created in the image of God!  America is a very diverse nation reflecting the full depth and breadth of humanity-all colors, creeds, sexual orientations and genders. We have to put to rest our bigotry and entitlement of certain races or class.  The so called minorities are now majorities in many places in our nation.  And all are created in the image of God!
  3. Corporations are not people.  Despite the ridiculous Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court-corporations are not people.  The Bible is really clear that there are clear lines between species!   Corporations may have people who work in them, invest in them, sell and buy them but when corporations can spend their corporate dollars freely on political interests or intimidate their workers to vote in a certain way they have crossed a line.   Which politician will have the courage to sponsor legislation to put regulations upon the way corporations give politically?
  4. The Bible teaches “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself”.  If we are to move forward as a country we need to remember our fellow citizens are not our enemies. We can vote differently, go to different houses of worship even root for a different sports team but we are all in this together.  And we need to come together as serious people to solve the many issues facing the future of our country.  Let’s not demonize one another but seek solutions together. Maybe then we can get our politicians to stop kicking the can down the road but actually work together!

A quote from this article appeared on the CNN Belief Blog on Nov. 13, 2012

Debt Release is an ancient concept

Parsaht Behar

Leviticus 25:1-26:2

This week’s Torah portion Behar is timely indeed.  Its focus is on the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year.  With the European elections that have taken place and the reaction to the growing debts and austerity programs to fix that debt, we are reminded that our ancestors had a regular and radical way to fix growing indebtedness.   That fix was the Jubilee year.  Every 50 years all debts were wiped out.  Slaves were freed and property (in the land of Israel) returned to its original owner!

 Debt forgiveness is the ancient prescription to growing and out of control indebtedness. Every 50 years the ram’s horn was sounded (this followed a sabbatical year) and the Yovel or Jubilee year was proclaimed.  Three features characterized a Yovel year: 1) the land must lie fallow; 2) land property that has been sold reverts to its original owners from the time of the conquest of Israel; 3) Hebrew slaves are to receive their freedom.  This is how the Yovel year was observed.  This release was a forgiveness of debt either on land or the indebtedness of slaves.   In one blast of the Shofar-debts were wiped out and society was reset for another fifty years.  

 Countries do this all the time for one another-debt forgiveness is a regular part of our foreign policy. 

Ancient societies including the Babylonians and Sumerians and even Rome engaged in forgiving monetary debts. 

 For the ancient Israelites this was a holy act. It was a reminder that all we have really belongs to God.

The land is God’s and God has “lent” us use of it. (Lev. 25:23).  It is this idea that is stated explicitly in our Torah portion this week!

Imagine if every 50 years your own indebtedness was gone.  Student loans, mortgages, car payments with the blast of the Shofar no longer existed. 

But that ancient society was also built on some different values than we have at work today.  This week’s torah portion reminds us that we cannot charge interest to a fellow Israelite precisely because she is our family.  Further if one of our family or tribe is in trouble financially then we have the obligation and responsibility to help bail them out!

 We are supposed to care for each other in the deepest ways.  We cannot turn a blind eye.

 In the biblical world view-there was to be neither overwhelming wealth nor deep poverty.  Sadly the gap grows larger in our own day and time between the rich and the poor.  Board room executives squeeze the workers dry and the way we do business makes indebtedness a way of life for the masses. Middle class?  Hardly anyone left there as most people are left behind.  Even a college degree doesn’t guarantee a job any more. 

 The Jubilee year was proclaimed throughout the land to even the odds.

 Perhaps it is an idea whose time has come round again.

 

Laugh Laugh Laugh

Purim is just a couple of days away.  The story of good Queen Esther, who doesn’t really know she is Jewish marries King Ashuereus who is a bit of an oaf.  The Evil Haman, descendent of the arch enemies of the Israelites, manipulates the King into decreeing the death of all the Jews of the Kingdoms of Persia and Medea and the more than 120 countries he rules over. But in the end Queen Esther at the urging of her very proudly Jewish uncle Mordechai speaks truth to power and reveals that she too is Jewish and reveals that Haman is behind this ethnic cleansing plan. Haman is hung on the gallows with his ten sons.  The Jews of the realm are saved by the heroic actions of this young woman.

If this story weren’t in the Bible itself we would laugh! It has all the makings of a genre of plays known as a farce.  Here is the definition of a farce from Wikipediea:

In theatre, a farce is a comedy which aims at entertaining the audience by means of unlikely, extravagant, and improbable situations, disguise and mistaken identity, verbal humour of varying degrees of sophistication, which may include word play, and a fast-paced plot whose speed usually increases, culminating in an ending which often involves an elaborate chase scene.

This is our story.  But it is meant to teach us many lessons because we can learn from fiction, literature and plays about our lives and the meaning of life and justice and hope and despair.  
The way we learn in the Esther story is through laughter and tears.

We learn to never abandon your roots.  You can live an assimilated life in the palace of the King as it were but you will always be Jewish. You can pretend your are not but your proud lineage and heritage will indeed be noted at some point.  And you will also need to decide if you will stand with your family or abandon them.  

We learn that justice only happens when we speak the truth to power as Esther did in this story.  

We learn about fighting back as the Jewish community did at the end of the story.

We learn that God may be hidden (Hester panim) in this story but the reason it was included in the Bible was to teach us that while God’s hand may seem hidden, the strength that God provides Esther to speak is there if we ask and invite it in.  Esther prayed before her meeting with the king.  She fasted and prayed and looked within herself to build courage for this important encounter.  And yet the story of Esther in the Bible never mentions the word God.  God doesn’t speak to Mordechai or Esther as God speaks to Moses and Abraham in the Bible.  

This teaches us in our time even as we are assimilated into the society at large be proud of being Jewish .

This teaches us in our time and maybe especially in our time we must speak up when family and friends are under attack. When governments try to annhilate its citizens we have an obligation to speak up.  The torah teaches us also: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”  To do less is   inhuman. 

This story teaches us that God is present even if God seems hidden from us.  All we have to do is tap into that Force of the Universe.  Jews do this through prayer, reflection and community and yes, occasionally fasting (although most often we are feasting! But that’s another blog altogether.) 

So Purim is here it begins on Wednesday night.  Laugh at the story of Esther after all it is written like a farce. But pay close attention to the lessons that it teaches.  Chag Purim!

 

 

 

Eat Pray Love: Shelach Lecha

Parshat Shelach Lecha

Numbers 13:1-15:41

I  am proud to be a Reform Jew.  My family has always been Jewish. We have kept the traditions more or less for hundreds of years. Some of my family has made aliyah to Israel. We have always been a family of Zionists, dreaming of Israel even before the advent of the modern State.  I grew up in a household where there was an ever present “Blue Box” for the Jewish National Fund.  There are famous rabbis who were Torah scholars in my family history.

 

As a Reform Jew I understand profoundly that while tradition is important it cannot overrule common sense or merely be upheld because that is the way things are always done!  I know that progress is made by adaptation, change and re-integration.   That is why when I read the Torah or our Bible or any of our sacred texts I read it at many levels.  This is consistent with our Tradition.  We Jews have always read our sacred texts with a  four –fold process calle PaRDeS, Pashat,  Drash, Remez and Seter-from the plain simple meaning of the text, to the midrashic exposition, to the hints and secrets of the mystics!

 

Today when I read our sacred literature not only do I use this time-worn tradition but added to it are layers of literary criticism, history, biblical critical scholarship and contemporary ideals!  This is a gift of Reform Judaism to our Jewish conversation through the millennia.

 

In this week’s Torah portion Shelach Lecha we come to a passage that describes the punishment for the Shabbat violator.  As we know, observing Shabbat is an important mitzvah.  It is number four of the Ten Commandments,” Remember the Sabbath Day and Hallow it”.   In this week’s Torah portion, a person is discovered gathering wood and brought before the whole community and placed in custody, “for it had not been specified what should be done to him.” (Num. 15:34). According to the verses following God instructs Moses to have the community stone him-death is the punishment for violating the Sabbath.

 

Now we don’t really know if this is TRUE. We have no way of knowing whether they really stoned anyone to death.  And the Rabbis of the Talmud discouraged any court from punishing people with the death penalty. But what we do know is the Torah is trying to teach us all not to work on Shabbat!  Gathering wood on Shabbat can only be to build a fire, or build a house of some sort.  Both of these were forbidden.  They are considered work.

 

What is certain death-is that if we never take a day off, if we work continuously, we won’t have to have a community stone us to death—we will work ourselves to death!   We human beings must have time to recharge; each night through sleep and at least one day to recover from our daily routines.  We need time to meditate, breathe and yes, think. We need time to play and laugh and celebrate with family and friends.  And while the story in the Torah this week is harsh because the community carries out the command , the communal responsibility to ensure that people have time off is another way to read this message.

 

As a Reform Jew, I re-interpret in light of contemporary society what rest means.  Work is different now than in Biblical days.  Rest and Renewal is different too.  In an agrarian society, gardening wouldn’t have been seen as a hobby.  Today it is.  So in your approach to the Bible and Tradition use your common sense.  As Reform Jews find a spiritual practice that includes Sabbath rest and renewal even if it looks different than the way our ancestors did so.  But take time off! Take a Shabbat.  Eat, Pray and Love. That is the real point!