Exodus: Gods and Kings

December 21, 2014

Originally posted on Rabbi at the Movies:

ExodusRidley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings is yet another Hollywood take on the Exodus story. Previous movie tellings include The Ten Commandments (1923), Moses the Lawgiver (1974), The Prince of Egypt (1998), The Ten Commandments (2007), and the most famous movie by that name, The Ten Commandments (1956) with Charlton Heston. Exodus: Gods and Kings has received mixed and negative reviews from critics.

It’s a boring movie with spectacular special effects. I am not sure what more to say than that – if you don’t know the story, go read the Book of Exodus.

Commentary

If you have read Exodus, you know that this film departs from the Torah in some significant ways.  Unlike The Prince of Egypt or the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments, the writers did not seek their extra material in Jewish midrashic literature. This film focuses on an imagining of the relationship of Moses and Ramses II…

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Israel & Texts: Online Learning!

December 19, 2014

LehrhausLogoHave you ever wished you could take a class to sort out what words like Torah, Tanakh, Gemara, Mishnah, and Talmud really mean? Wondered how “Jewish law” is related to the Torah text? Ever wished you could learn more about the history of Israel and the Jews?

Registration is open for the Winter session of Intro to the Jewish Experience, “Israel and Texts” and it includes an online option! Class meetings will take place at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA on Wednesday evenings from 7:30 – 9pm (PST) beginning January 14. For those who cannot attend in Berkeley, we offer the option of attending via Adobe Connect, a cloud-based classroom. All meetings are recorded, so that students also have the option of watching the class recordings.

All classes are taught by me except for Jan 21 and 28. I’m honored to welcome Dr. Jehon Grist as our guest lecturer on Israel.

Class schedule:

Jan 14 – Welcome & Introductions:  Jews, Texts, and Shabbat
Jan 21 –Ancient Israel – Guest: Dr. Jehon Grist
Jan 28 –Modern Israel & Zionism  – Guest: Dr. Jehon Grist
Feb 4 – Torah, Tanakh & Midrash
Feb 11 – Beginnings of Rabbinic Judaism
Feb 18 – What is the Talmud?
Feb 25 – Codes, Responsa and Jewish Law
March 11 – Jewish Values, Jewish Ethics

For registration, go to the class page in the Lehrhaus Catalog. Class tuition is $105.

Check out Lehrhaus’ other online course offerings this winter and spring.

Lehrhaus Judaica is a unique non-denominational Jewish studies adult school. Every course is open to the general public, and all interested adults are welcome, regardless of age, religion, or ethnicity.

 

 


Hanukah – A Major Battleground for the Heart and Soul of the Jewish People

December 18, 2014

rabbiadar:

Hanukkah is a high stakes holiday: not minor at all.

Originally posted on Rabbi John Rosove's Blog:

Last week I was invited to speak at Campbell Hall, a large private school in Studio City, Los Angeles, before two hundred and fifty 7th and 8th grade students about the story of Hanukah.

I began by saying that without the success of the Maccabean Revolt in 165 BCE, there would be no Judaism, no Christianity and no Islam today. I then reviewed the traditional story of Hanukah as it comes down to us through Jewish tradition, telling about the heroic battle of the Maccabean family against the Greeks, the Greek desecration of the Temple Mount, the miracle of the oil lasting eight days instead of one, the lighting of the Hanukiah, latkes, and dreidls, and then I said, “Truth to tell, this isn’t the history of this holiday at all. Most of that is story-telling. The real history is far more interesting and important for us today, Jews and…

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First Night of Chanukah: Not What I Planned

December 16, 2014

#ChanukahBlackLivesMatterI’ve been at my desk all day, ignoring the obvious: my body is especially gimpy today. Staying at my desk was tempting because:

  1. I have a lot of work to do, most of it desk-work.
  2. At my desk, I can pretend I’m not having an arthritis flare, even though sitting for long periods will absolutely make the flare worse.
  3. I had an investment in pretending, because I wanted to go to San Francisco tonight to be part of the #BlackLivesMatter march.

Fortunately for me, I have a wise spouse, who watched me get up from my chair and said, “I wish you were not going to that march tonight. You are in no shape for it.” After some hemming and hawing, I had to admit she was right. Even on the scooter, I was not in shape to be out in the rain, in a big crowd, far from home.

Inside my head, I feel fabulous, energized, full of love and Torah after the past week of retreats and travel. In the rest of my body, I feel about 100 years old. This is just a fact of living in a body with arthritis, old injuries and a bunch of other problems.

Sometimes we have to accept things as they are, and be grateful for what is possible, rather than grumpy about what isn’t. I’m grateful for the people who love me enough to tell me when I’m over-reaching, because I often fail to notice until it’s too late.

I remind myself what Rabbi Tarfon is quoted as saying in Pirkei Avot: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. However you are not free to desist from it.” We have to try, but we do not have to push past the limits of our ability. I can contribute more to #BlackLivesMatter right now by teaching and writing. That’s the fact of it.

Do you have limitations against which you chafe sometimes? How do you cope, and how do you comfort yourself?


Let’s Study Talmud!

December 15, 2014

I love this video by Rabbi Josh Strom of Temple Shaaray Tefila in NYC.

When I first began learning Torah, I was in awe of anyone who studied Talmud. Then I joined a Talmud study group because I heard it was a great way to train a Jewish mind. One thing led to another and I went to rabbinical school!

Talmud study is best with a good teacher, but it is possible for most Jews to access at least a taste of it. In our time, translations are available for those who do not read Hebrew or Aramaic, although some of the “good stuff” is only available if you have some of the language.

What is Talmud? It’s the combination of Mishnah and Gemara:

Mishnah + Gemara = Talmud

The Mishnah is an ordered collection of the rabbinic interpretations of Torah, including the disagreements. In the chaotic Jewish world of the first two centuries of the Common Era, the head of the rabbis in the land of Israel decided it was important to write down these interpretations, so that they would not be lost. That happened in the year 200 CE

The Gemara is the continuation and expansion of those discussions, which were only well begun in 200. The Gemara is the continuation of those discussions and further expansions. Gemara was assembled in two collections, one in Israel (the Jerushalmi, or Jerusalem Talmud) and one in Babylon (the Bavli, or Babylonian Talmud.) The Bavli was completed in about 600 CE.

Talmud is a set of discussions that seem to go everywhere and nowhere. Often people expect a law book, and are surprised to find that while it includes something like law (halakhah) it also has stories, recipes, and digressions (aggadah.) It is used by students to learn the tradition, to explore our heritage, and also to train minds.

Don’t be afraid to give Talmud a try! It will expand your Jewish mind in directions that will surprise you.


The B’not Mitzvah of Vegas

December 14, 2014
B'not Mitzvah

B’not Mitzvah Class with Cantor Jessica Nicole Hutchings and Rabbi Sanford Akselrad (photo courtesy of Julie Barto Fisher)

Wanted to have a bat mitzvah but the family said no? Were you a Catholic when you were 13? Or was your bar mitzvah an awful thing and you wish you could have a do-over?

Or would you just like to expand your Jewish horizons and capabilities?

This past Shabbat I had the pleasure of attending an Adult B’not Mitzvah (that’s Daughters of the Commandment, plural) at Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, NV, next door to Las Vegas. I was the Visiting Assistant Rabbi there from 2008-2011, and it will always be close to my heart. Word arrived that a class of seven women would celebrate the keystone of their Adult Bat Mitzvah studies on December 12. I immediately wrote to Rabbi Sanford Akselrad asking if I could attend (professional courtesy) and he wrote back inviting me to be the guest preacher for services the evening before. I had a lovely, lovely Shabbat, touching base with old friends.

I’ve written before that it’s not too late to experience most aspects of Jewish growing-up. Many adults didn’t have a formal bar or bat mitzvah for various reasons. In truth, anyone officially Jewish and over the age of 13 is a bar or bat mitzvah. Long ago, this rite of passage from childhood to responsibility for the commandments began to be marked, for boys, by a reading from the Torah or Haftarah and a service, followed by a celebration. In March 1922, Judith Kaplan led the first American Bat Mitzvah service. However, even as late as the 1960’s they were fairly unusual, so many adult Jewish women haven’t had that opportunity. And of course, anyone who was Catholic or Buddhist at age 13 didn’t celebrate a Jewish milestone at that age.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah is not a party, nor is it a service. It’s really a process of study, learning some Hebrew, learning about Judaism, and becoming more knowledgeable and capable as a Jewish adult, culminating in a synagogue service. For adults who go through the process, it generally takes two years of work. I knew several of the women who celebrated this past weekend, and I was impressed at how much they have grown in their Jewish capabilities over this process. They inspire me to keep on with my studies, to continue to grow as a Jew, because we are never done learning.

If you have a hankering to read from the Torah, to lead a service, or just to learn a lot of great Jewish learning, talk with your rabbi about an adult bar or bat mitzvah. As Hillel asked us so long ago, If not now, when? (Avot 1.14)

Julie Arnold chants the final verses of Genesis 40.

Julie Arnold chants the final verses of Genesis 40.

A grammatical note: Bar Mitzvah is “son of the commandment.” Bat Mitzvah is “daughter of…” B’nei Mitzvah are “sons of…” or “children of…” and B’not Mitvah is “daughters of …” Learning a little Hebrew is always a good thing.


Vayeshev: What Changed Joseph?

December 13, 2014

This post was given as a sermon at Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, Nevada on December 12, 2014, Shabbat Vayeshev

I’m going to start tonight with a personal question, a question I want you to answer only in your own heart:

Was there ever been a time in your life when you felt utterly abandoned by everyone? A time when you felt that the people you depended on had failed you, or turned on you? When you had no friends at all, and you were in awful trouble?

Maybe you have been fortunate, and have never had that experience. If that’s the case, I ask you to imagine it.

That’s exactly the situation our ancestor Joseph is in at the end of this week’s Torah portion. He is sitting in prison. His brothers debated killing him, and instead sold him into slavery. He managed to rise to a position of trust in the household of an important man, and his employer’s wife turned on him. He managed to make an influential friend in prison, and that friend has forgotten him.

There is no question that Joseph started out as a foolish young man.

He was spoiled by his father. When at age 17 he went to his father to tattle on his brothers, Jacob did not teach him about lashon harah. He did not teach Joseph not to talk about others. Instead, Jacob gave him a fancy coat.

Joseph was so naive that it never occurred to him that his brothers’ hatred was serious business.

Those who should have taught him and protected him failed him again and again: His father did not teach him. His brothers turned on him in anger.

And let’s face it, the boy seems to have been pretty clueless.

So he winds up in Egypt, a slave. He has one piece of luck: he is purchased by an important man, Potiphar. He rises to a position of trust in the household. But then, because he is young and foolish, because he has no one to advise him, he makes another mistake.

Just as he failed to see the danger in his brother’s anger, he fails to see the danger in the desire of Potiphar’s wife.

A wiser man would never be alone in the house with her. A wiser man might have made sure there were other servants around at all times. After all, he was the steward of the household! He gave the orders!

Instead, he was accused of a terrible crime for which he had no alibi. His master, furious, put him in prison.

And there he sat, without friends, without family. He was a foreigner. He had been accused of a terrible crime. He had no way to prove his innocence.

Even when he made a friend – Even when it looked like there might be hope, he was forgotten. He had been left to rot.

The chapter ends with Joseph in jail, abandoned.

The next chapter begins two years later, and Joseph seems to be a different man. As foolish as he had been before, Joseph became wise.

The text leaves us to wonder what happened during those two years sitting in Pharaoh’s jail?

When there is a gap in the Biblical story we look to Midrash, to the stories of the rabbis to help us understand.

Midrash tells us that Joseph spent his time in jail learning.

He learned the languages of all the men imprisoned there. 

He reflected upon the lessons of his father Jacob,

who had taught him about the One God who demands that we act with justice and kindness.

So the boy who was sold into slavery

The boy who was only interested in himself

Became a man who was interested in other people.

Became a man who learned languages so that he could understand people.

He became a man who reflected not on his own dreams but upon the dreams of others.

Joseph the spoiled brat became Yosef Ha-Tzaddik, Joseph the Righteous Man.

So what’s the lesson here? What’s the point?

One thing we can learn is what to do when, like Joseph, we feel that we have been abandoned by everyone, when everything is hopeless.

We can learn.

Instead of focusing on what others have done to us, we can do what Joseph did: we can learn how to listen and how to talk with others.

Instead of allowing bitterness to fill our souls, or worse yet, plotting our revenge, we can reflect on a God who commands that we act with justice and kindness.

We can learn to let go of “me, me, me” and look beyond ourselves and our own aggrandizement.

Psalm 1 tells us this about the tzaddik, the righteous person:

“His delight is in the Torah of the Eternal; and in God’s Torah he meditates day and night.”

Torah is often translated “Law” but it is more correctly translated “Teaching.” And what Joseph teaches us, and the Psalmist underlines, is that when we feel that things can get no worse, the best thing we can do is learn.

By this I don’t mean “learn our lesson,” although sometimes, that’s one thing we need to do. Rather, I mean something much larger: we need to learn everything we can about how to connect to other people. Because when we are sitting in that lowest place one of the things that has gone wrong is our connections to others.

Torah teaches us many ways to connect:

Abraham teaches hospitality.

Isaac teaches how to get along with angry neighbors.

Jacob teaches us how (and how not to!) deal with our relatives.

Joseph taught us many things, but in his great moment of teshuvah in the prison, he taught us the most important lessons of all:

Learn Torah.

Learn about ourselves and our mistakes.

Learn about others.

Learn how to speak and to listen to people different from ourselves.

Learn new ways to be with others.

Learn.

For it is by learning that we grow, it is in learning that we expand our horizons.

It is in learning that we begin to connect with the world outside ourselves.

If we can do that, if we can learn how to go from the narrow prison to the wider world,

We can become agents of our own change,

agents of Torah in the wider world.  

Shabbat shalom.


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