Winning Isn’t Everything

Los Angeles is in a winning frenzy and it isn’t even award season!  Los Angeles teams, the Kings, Ducks and the Clippers are battling in their respective sports ‘ playoffs.

Even if you are not a great basketball or hockey fan you can’t escape the determination and grit that these players show during each game.  Add to that both the Dodgers and Angels play almost daily along with Los Angeles soccer teams the Galaxy and Chivas USA.  Women’s Basketball season begins next week and we are home to the LA Sparks.  And I couldn’t mention pro sports without mentioning the LA Lakers who had perhaps their worst season ever. It’s a veritable rainbow of colors and mascots!

But even with all the competitive play and the enjoyment fans of all stripes get from cheering on their favorite players and teams it is clear that winning isn’t everything.

The Donald Sterling debacle of racist attitudes that were revealed publically proves that sports have something to say about many other issues.  Winning isn’t everything.  More than contracts and coaching changes, the state of sports and the owners and players and yes, the fans matter. Attitudes matter because they infect and affect the nature of the game.   When Sterling’s words and disregard of people of color were revealed by TMZ and the subsequent reaction teach us that the lessons of our Jewish tradition should be heeded.  We are taught that all people are created in the image of God-b’tzelem Elohim.  I guess Mr. Sterling missed that lesson in Religious School.

The deep wound of racism in our country continues to bleed.  No matter whether it comes in the form of a basketball team owner, a rancher in Nevada, or being picked up for driving while black, our country must confront the deadly divisions around race in our country.  Where can we have those conversations in safety? There are deep reservoirs of hurt, resentment and anger in our country around race and discrimination that still exists.  And we cannot sweep it under the rug.

Judaism is supposed to offer us guidance in learning to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Judaism teaches us that we cannot judge a person by the color of their skin from the story of Miriam, Moses’ sister who pointed out the dark skin color of his wife Tziporrah. Tzipporah was a very righteous woman who helped bring her sons into the covenant with Abraham even when Moses her husband neglected it.  It was Miriam who was punished for her racism. And in the Bible’s ironic voice, Miriam was turned snow white even as she pointed out Tziporra dark skin! The Torah story teaches us that a person must be judged by her deeds not by the color of her skin.  A winning attitude is about living a righteous and upright life and anyone can strive to achieve this.

So yes, as the playoffs continue, we cheer for our various teams and we hope they win. But winning isn’t everything.  Words and deeds matter and how we treat one another. We still have a long way to go before we will be truly color blind.  In the meantime, we have to engage in the conversation about race openly and honestly and our own roles in continuing to support institutional racism.  And most importantly, we ought to strive to live by our Jewish values and overcome the racism around us. Then the only colors we ought to see are our team colors!

Eight Days a week – Parshat Shemini

Parshat Shimini

Leviticus 9:1 -11:47

This week’s Torah portion is different. By that I mean if you are a Reform Jew or you live in Israel the Torah portion we read from is Shimini. If you are a Conservative or Orthodox Jew living outside of Israel you are still observing Passover this Shabbat and there is a special reading for the 8th day of Passover. But Reform Jews observe the Biblical Torah cycle which coincides with the way all Israeli Jews read the Torah! The irony of this week’s portion is that the word Shimini means eighth day!!!! It reminds us of the Beatles’ song “Eight days a week”! This week we read the first half of Shimini. The portion opens with the first offering given by the High Priest in the new Tent of Meeting, the Ohel Moed. Moses had dedicated the altar and Tent with offerings for the first seven days of its inauguration. But Moses was not the High Priest. He had the honor of the first offerings. But then Moses had to install Aaron and the priesthood which he did by a special anointing. Then on the eighth day of the observance Aaron and his sons began their regular work as the Priesthood, culminating a wonderful celebration. One of the most powerful moments of this sacred celebration is that the fire that consumed the sacrifice was seen by the whole people. Leviticus 9:24 states, “And fire went forth from before Adonai and consumed the burnt offering and the fats upon the altar, and all the people saw, sang praises, and fell upon their faces.” This was not some hidden moment. God’s glory and strength was witness by the entire Israelite nation. Think about it. Usually, the work of priesthood is secretive, mysterious, done behind closed doors. But in this case a new open system was created and shared. Everyone knew the formula for the offerings (These were described in the last two weeks Torah Portions). Everyone was privy to the miracle of God in their midst. While the priesthood had special job roles, they did not possess some secret knowledge. And they could not make up some secret knowledge. In fact that is one of the purposes of the story contained in this week’s portion, the death of the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu. Immediately following this great 8th day of culmination ceremony, Nadav and Avihu come to the altar and try to offer a sacrifice that was not what God required. Chapter 10:1 states: “And Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before Adonai foreign fire, which God had not commanded them.” They did it in secret. They did it when not called upon to. They did it without proper reverence (tradition teaches they were drunk from the celebration!) They did it to usurp their father’s power. All reasons that flaunt the new system of openness and inclusiveness of the people. This heritage of openness and inclusiveness is the values we should uphold in our traditions today even though some would not. The Torah is not the exclusive material for rabbis and scholars but is accessible to all. The mitzvot are not something done by a special class of people but incumbent upon all Jews. The teachings of the Jewish people are not only for some Jews but for all Jews to learn debate, innovate and make meaningful. That is the challenge for the liberal Jew. Not simply to “not do” or “we don’t do that anymore.” But the challenge is to make meaning from knowledge. This is how we integrate contemporary life into our ancient traditions. And that spirit of openness and transparency is exactly the spirit we must bring to our synagogues, our Jewish institutions and our study and knowledge of Torah today!

The End and a Beginning

Parshat Vaykheil-Pekude

Exodus 35:1 – 40:38

 

This week’s Parasha continues with the recounting of the building of the Mishkan.  In Parshat Terumah  and Parshat Tetzaveh, the instructions and designs are revealed to Moses.  And tradition states that in our portions this week, the plans are executed.  Moses now tells the Children of Israel of the plans and Betzalel and his assistant Oholiob oversee the craftsmen and women to complete the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.   “And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every wise hearted man into whose heart Adonai had given wisdom, everyone whose heart lifted him up to approach the work to do it. (36:2). Volunteers were encouraged to be a part of the process of building the Tabernacle!

 It is always exciting to be part of making something. Whether building a home or just redecorating having a project like the building of the Mishkan creates excitement.  That is why there are so many television shows about housing design, make-overs and building anew.  One could get carried away with all the details and want to rush through the project to finish. But the Children of Israel are reminded in the opening words of the Torah portion to observe Shabbat.  The excitement of this project could mean that the volunteers, artisans and workers might work

non-stop. But Moses and God reminds the Israelites of their sacred obligations. 

 

What would it say and mean if Shabbat were violated in the building of God’s place on earth?
It would certainly be a contradiction of values!

 Perhaps for each of us there is an important reminder here.  In a world that wants to push us 24/7 to do more, build more, create more we must push back.  Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of the power and beauty of Shabbat not just the rituals but the opportunity for downtime, reflective time and yes, SLEEP!

 

We are one of the most sleep deprived nations.

 

Some of the latest research shows that “a team of researchers in Wisconsin and Italy has found that in rats kept awake past their bed times, their brains begin to turn themselves off, neuron by neuron, though the rat is still awake” (USA TODAY, 4-27-11). The most likely neurons to go offline are the ones we use daily!   This is like sleeping while you are still awake and affects functioning

 

“The research could mean that the 35% of Americans who told the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that they routinely sleep less than seven hours a night are also having portions of their brains go off-line even though they’re still awake.”

So the ancients and our Torah understood that we workers need down time and time to restore our souls AND OUR BODIES!  Shabbat is the way.  Even when we are excited about building a project, we can’t let our enthusiasm get in the way of taking time off to rest and renew ourselves.

 As the Ten Commandments remind us: Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep it Holy!!!!

Leadership Style

Parshat Ki Tissa

Exodus 30:11-34:35 

 

This week we observe the joyous holiday of Purim.  The Story of Esther in our Tanach, the Hebrew Scriptures, reminds us of the human strength to be the voice of justice and truth.  Esther prepared for three days of prayer and a day of fasting to summons the courage to approach the King. Tradition teaches that these days of spiritual preparation allowed God’s Divine presence to flow through her to challenge the injustices in her day.  She is a model of leadership.

 

Although God is not mentioned in the Purim tale, the hidden face of God works miracles through the courage of Esther and her Uncle Mordechai. Together they challenge the evil that Haman would have unleashed upon the Jews of ancient Persia and Medea.  Esther called upon the faith and traditions of her ancestors to aid her. She used it her Jewish prayer as a foundation for leadership.  She could have given into her doubts and fears. Instead she chooses the path of prayer and reflection to gird her with strength.

 

And so we great this holiday with merriment and joy!

 

And yet when we celebrate this holiday this week we do so against the background of the weekly Parasha, Ki Tissa. This is the week the Children of Israel stray from their newly born covenant with God.  With Moses gone for so many days in a row on Mt. Sinai, the Children of Israel get anxious and fearful. “When people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron…” and demand that Aaron, who was left in charge, make an idol for them.

 

Without the leadership of Moses they felt abandoned and scared. They needed a talisman. They needed comforting. Of course we know that Aaron capitulated and this led to a series of events including Moses’ returning and breaking the Tablets of the Commandments and Moses’ pleading on behalf of the Israelites for God’s forgiving grace to rule the day.

 

What would have happened if Aaron had shown the leadership of Esther and Mordechai? Would the story of the Israelite nation be different?  When the people are scared or threatened, those in charge must rise to great heights.  Leadership demands faith.  Leadership demands preparation. Imagine if Esther caved in to her fears and never confronted Haman before the King, then surely the Jews of the Shushan and the kingdom would have been doomed.  Imagine if Aaron had quelled the fears of the Israelites, the tablets may not have been shattered and we might not have had to wait 40 years until we crossed into the Promised Land.

 

Esther provides a spiritual model of preparation for leadership. It takes prayer, and yes sometimes fasting, but a great leader is always self reflective and seeks the strength and protection of the Shekinah.  This isn’t just for political leaders or spiritual leaders. This model of spiritual reflection, prayer and faith can be an aid in any endeavor. 

 

So this week channel the spirit and courage and faith of Mordechai and Esther. It will lead you to great heights!

Leadership Style

Parshat Ki Tissa

Exodus 30:11-34:35 

 

This week we observe the joyous holiday of Purim.  The Story of Esther in our Tanach, the Hebrew Scriptures, reminds us of the human strength to be the voice of justice and truth.  Esther prepared for three days of prayer and a day of fasting to summons the courage to approach the King. Tradition teaches that these days of spiritual preparation allowed God’s Divine presence to flow through her to challenge the injustices in her day.  She is a model of leadership.

 

Although God is not mentioned in the Purim tale, the hidden face of God works miracles through the courage of Esther and her Uncle Mordechai. Together they challenge the evil that Haman would have unleashed upon the Jews of ancient Persia and Medea.  Esther called upon the faith and traditions of her ancestors to aid her. She used it her Jewish prayer as a foundation for leadership.  She could have given into her doubts and fears. Instead she chooses the path of prayer and reflection to gird her with strength.

 

And so we great this holiday with merriment and joy!

 

And yet when we celebrate this holiday this week we do so against the background of the weekly Parasha, Ki Tissa. This is the week the Children of Israel stray from their newly born covenant with God.  With Moses gone for so many days in a row on Mt. Sinai, the Children of Israel get anxious and fearful. “When people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron…” and demand that Aaron, who was left in charge, make an idol for them.

 

Without the leadership of Moses they felt abandoned and scared. They needed a talisman. They needed comforting. Of course we know that Aaron capitulated and this led to a series of events including Moses’ returning and breaking the Tablets of the Commandments and Moses’ pleading on behalf of the Israelites for God’s forgiving grace to rule the day.

 

What would have happened if Aaron had shown the leadership of Esther and Mordechai? Would the story of the Israelite nation be different?  When the people are scared or threatened, those in charge must rise to great heights.  Leadership demands faith.  Leadership demands preparation. Imagine if Esther caved in to her fears and never confronted Haman before the King, then surely the Jews of the Shushan and the kingdom would have been doomed.  Imagine if Aaron had quelled the fears of the Israelites, the tablets may not have been shattered and we might not have had to wait 40 years until we crossed into the Promised Land.

 

Esther provides a spiritual model of preparation for leadership. It takes prayer, and yes sometimes fasting, but a great leader is always self reflective and seeks the strength and protection of the Shekinah.  This isn’t just for political leaders or spiritual leaders. This model of spiritual reflection, prayer and faith can be an aid in any endeavor. 

 

So this week channel the spirit and courage and faith of Mordechai and Esther. It will lead you to great heights!

Continuing Revelation

Parshat Mishpatim

Exodus  21:1 -24:18

Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Mishpatim expounds and expands the Ten Commandments given in last week’s Torah portion, Yitro.  The Jewish people are blessed with a system of law and rules to live by.   Why weren’t “Ten” rules for living enough?  Why does God give Moses further instruction?  The laws explained in this week’s portion apply to situations that evolve from every day interactions among human beings.  Even though the Ten Commandments say do not steal, this week’s portion further elucidates what happens to thieves and what happens in specific situations of theft.  

The statues in this week’s portion help keep the peace when conflict arises between human beings. It talks about what happens when two people fight or when an animal gets out of control.  It reminds us also of some religious obligations about the festivals. The continuation of the giving of the Law reminds us that we are complex beings living in a complex society and we need answers for how to navigate morally and justly through a variety of situations.

In other words our Sages agree this portion is a continuation of the Revelation at Sinai.  It didn’t stop with the Ten Commandments but Jewish laws were given about much more than just the initial Ten. Jewish law and Jewish ways of handling every situation have evolved over time and interpretation.  Luckily our ancestors devoted significant time and effort to not only catalogue the mitzvot but to discuss them.  And still today we are engaged in a similar process of working through Jewish law in the face of contemporary society. 

 We can readily see that the laws and rules and statutes of Parshat Mishpatim are a continuation of the Ten Commandments because the end of the Torah portion reverts back to the narrative style and tells the story of what happens after God reveals these laws to Moses. Moses writes this all down and then presents it to the people.  He reads the Covenant to them and they respond with one voice, “We will do it and we will observe it.” (Ex. 24:7).  This enthusiasm by the Israelites is an affirmation of their part in the Covenantal process. It is not just God commanding but it the Israelites giving their wholehearted affirmation!

 Today more Jews than ever before have checked out of Judaism and Jewish institutions.  They are ambivalent about God, Torah and the people Israel.  They are ignorant of our traditions and customs and frankly, many don’t really know what to think or do.  Perhaps you are someone with more than a healthy skepticism about the validity of Jewish life in the 21st Century. 

 But now more than ever the teachings, and Ten Commandments and values of Jewish tradition speak to us and help us live a deeper and richer life of meaning.  By listening to the stories and thoughts of great Jewish thinkers and teacher we might find out that our own roots have a lot and stories have a positive impact upon our lives.  This week’s portion, Mishapatim, helps us encounter the beginnings of Jewish laws, commandments and ideas about living life with others.  The Talmud, Shulchan Aruch and other major Jewish works of halacha, or Jewish law continues that encounter for us.  Responsa literature, the questions of law and practice posed to important rabbinic legal scholars throughout the ages also help us synthesize the past and the present for the future.   Through the study of these powerful texts and an encounter with them we can reclaim our heritage and reclaim the revelation at Sinai for each of us! The Revelation is never over. It continues through us and to us!

 I hope that you might be curious enough to engage in that encounter!  I wait with open books and yes, open arms!

The Bones of Joseph

Parshat Beshallach

Exodus 13:17-17:16

Our Torah portion contains one of the most well-known moments in the Bible.  This week the Children of Israel walk between walls of water on dry land to escape Egypt and Pharaoh’s army.  Cinematic images of Charlton Heston as Moses are burned into our global psyches!

 

Moses raises his staff high as God commanded and the waters parted only to come crashing down on the chariots of Pharaoh as they chased the escaping Israelites.  Pharaoh regretted letting the slave class leave and were trying to bring them back to slavery in Egypt. But they met their watery end.

 

We all know that in this episode the Children of Israel celebrated their new found freedom in song and dance that their deliverance had been granted.  Miriam led the women and children in a victory celebration singing the poem, Shirat Hayam that is attributed to Moses.  It is then the real journey in the wilderness towards Mt. Sinai begins.  Their dramatic escape was just the first round.  But the real march toward the Revelation at Mt. Sinai will begin in this week’s Torah portion.

On this journey however, Moses remembers to bring with them the bones of their ancestor Joseph.  Joseph who brought his brothers and father to Egypt to escape famine more than 400 years earlier will not remain in Egypt.  Though he became an Egyptian vizier he never forgot that he was a Hebrew.  And Moses though he too was raised in the Egyptian royal palace as an Egyptian prince, knew as well that he was a Hebrew.

 

Verse 13:19 states: Moses took Joseph’s bones with him, for he [Joseph] had adjured the sons of Israel, saying, God will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you.

 

This ancient promise was not forgotten.  And our ancestor was not forgotten but rather, Joseph accompanies the Israelites!

 

Which of your ancestors are with you on your journey?  Whose memory continues to inspire you each day?

 

Our custom of reciting Kaddish for our loved ones on their yarzeit is one of the ways we honor our family and friends whose memories are precious to us and who still accompany us on our journey.  The mitzvah of reciting the Kaddish prayer during a worship service  observing the yarzeit is how we can be like Moses and “carry the bones” with us to our own Promised Land.

 

All too often today many do not even make the effort to say the special and life affirming words of the Kaddish.  The challenge I take away from this week’s Torah portion is to reaffirm our commitment to honoring our ancestors who guided us, shaped us and still accompany us.

 

I invite you to honor them and come say Kaddish for them by making the extra effort.  The blessing of memory will uplift you and all of us.