What’s Shabbat Like At Your House?

Image: Potluck Shabbat dishes ready to travel to a friend’s home. (Photo: Ruth Adar)

From time to time I sit on a beit din, a court of three rabbis that meets with a candidate to decide if they are ready for the final steps of conversion to Judaism. At the risk of giving away too much, this is one of my usual questions: “What’s Shabbat like at your house?”

This isn’t a pass/fail question. Rather, I want to encourage the about-to-be Jew to be deliberate about their Shabbat practice. Shabbat is one of the keys to a happy and full Jewish life, and I want that for every Jew!

If your answer to the question is “Gee, I dunno” let me offer you some questions that may help you think through what you want from Shabbat:

  1. If “work” is activity that drains your soul, what parts of your life feel most like work? Is there any way that you can structure your life so that you can put down that activity or thing for at least part of Shabbat?
  2. If “rest” is activity that feeds your soul, what parts of your life are truly restful? How can you bring more of that into your life during Shabbat?
  3. Do you want a richer Jewish life? Shabbat offers lots of opportunities for growing Jewishly and spiritually, from synagogue services to freeing up time to read.
  4. Does connection with other people feed your soul? Shabbat can nudge us to make time for our families and friends. It can also help us to make friends, at synagogue services and other Jewish activities. It can be a day to invite someone over or to visit (or phone) someone sick.

I am not suggesting that you do everything at once. Let’s say, you decide to get to know more people at synagogue by going to Torah study. That’s a definite addition to your Saturday morning. You will learn a little Torah, and by listening to others, you’ll get a sense of who they are. They’ll get used to you, too, without either of you having to do a song-and-dance. Give that new activity a solid chance – say, four weeks in a row – and then sit down to think about how you feel when you are doing the Shabbat routine. Better? Worse? Making new friends? Mad at the world? Then, if it isn’t working for you, try something else.

If it is working, consider adding a new wrinkle. Say, you’ve lit Shabbat candles for the past month, and you enjoyed it. Consider inviting someone over for Shabbat dinner, and give that the 4-week trial. It doesn’t have to be fancy. See how it goes.

Shabbat is the treasure of the Jewish people. It is a day for enjoyment, for learning, for sharing, for reflection, for prayer, for getting enough sleep, and for love. Shabbat is a little different in every Jewish home.

What’s Shabbat like at your house? What would you like it to be?

Advertisements

Be Strong and Resolute! – Vayeilech

Image:  Eight hands join over a map. (Photo: geralt/Pixabay) 

Chapter 31 of Deuteronomy is also known as Parashat Vayeilech. Moses is about to die, and he’s worried about the Israelites. He’s had 40 years of their insubordination and complaining, and while he wants to give them good advice, he’s also not at all certain that they will follow it.

The advice begins with prophecy: “You’re going to cross into the Land after I die. You’ll follow Joshua, my successor, and God will be with you. You’re going to face opposition from the residents of the land, but with God’s help you will prevail, as long as you follow instructions.”

Then the instructions: first, to the Israelites, he says:

חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ  (Hizku v’imtzu!)

Be strong and resolute! – Deuteronomy 31:6

And then immediately turns to Joshua, and says to him:

חֲזַ֣ק וֶאֱמָץ֒  (Hazak v’amatz!)

Be strong and resolute! – Deuteronomy 31: 7

This seems redundant: why say it twice? Why first to the people, and then to their leader in exactly the same words, only changed from plural to singular masculine?

I believe he does this because he knows that in future, the people and their leaders will go forward in a covenantal relationship. Joshua, and the leaders who follow after him, will have to be strong and resolute to do their jobs properly. Sometimes they will lead wisely, and sometimes they will not. But they will not be alone, because they lead in sacred relationship with the people of Israel. Moses gives the people the same charge, “Be strong and resolute” and he gives it to them first. Going forward, they will not be led like little children; they will be led by leaders who are fallible, and who may need to be reminded from time to time of their obligations under Torah.

And indeed, in the next verses, Moses entrusts the Torah to the priests, and gives them specific instructions for regular readings of the Torah to the whole people of Israel:

Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere the LORD your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. – Deuteronomy 31:12

The Torah is not a book for specialists, or only for the leaders. It isn’t only for the men. It isn’t only for born Jews, or for rich Jews, or for insiders. It is the inheritance of ALL Jews, “men, women, and children, and the strangers in your communities.” Regular reading will insure that the People know the Torah, and can hold the leaders accountable to it.

And indeed, as the years passed, we know that sometimes the leaders were wise and their work was informed by Torah. We also know that there were times when ordinary Israelites had to call them to account. Some of those Israelites were prophets, like Nathan and Jeremiah. Some of those Israelites were women, like Michal and in the rabbinic period, Beruriah. Some converts to Judaism became leaders of the People, like Avtalyon and Shemaya (Yoma 71b) and some called the leaders to account, as well.

The long path of Jewish history is a partnership between leaders and ordinary Jews. I see it particularly in the history of the Reform Movement, when early leaders such as Samuel Holdheim would have an idea (“Would it be a good idea to move Shabbat to Sunday?” and the Jew in the Pew would say, “Absolutely not!” There was nothing in the tradition to support a move to Sunday, and while having a different Sabbath than Christians was inconvenient, it was not impossible. Today, all Reform congregations celebrate Shabbat from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, just as do other Jewish congregations.

Jews and their leaders need to talk to one another, and we need to listen to each other, too. We have to make our arguments “for the sake of heaven,” (Avot 5:17) that is, for the greater good, not for our own aggrandizement. Questions, even questioning authority, are good as long as they seek the truth.

These discussions are not easy. It is not easy for leaders to listen, because it’s simpler if they don’t have to listen. It can be hard for an ordinary person to speak up, fearing they’ll sound stupid or that they’ll be ignored.

That’s why the text says “Be strong and resolute” twice. We need to be strong and resolute partners to solve problems and to move forward. We need to be strong enough to listen, resolute enough to speak up, and to act. That’s the only way we will solve the problems in this world, whether they are large global issues or small local problems: in partnerships.

Let us pray for partners in peace, partners in discussion, partners in the struggle for truth in this world! Let us pray that when we meet a potential partner, we have the wisdom and grace to recognize them as such.

 

 

Shoftim: Who Is My Idol?

Image: A collection of idols: Egyptian gods, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Israeli fighter jet, smartphone, Greek demi-god, Kardashians, U.S. Twenty dollar bill, Andrew Jackson, Child sacrifice, Moloch. Collage from public domain photos by R. Ruth Adar.

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

You shall not set up a sacred post—any kind of pole beside the altar of the LORD your God that you may make— or erect a stone pillar; for such the LORD your God detests. – Deuteronomy 16:20-22
The first verse above is one of the most famous in all the Torah. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!” it commands with mighty emphasis. It sits right at the beginning of Parashat Shoftim, or “Judges.”
The follow-up to“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!” seems like a non sequitur. It is a commandment against idolatry via the Asherah pole or a stone pillar, either of which is an idol. So we might ask: what’s the connection?
God detests idolatry. It’s one of the major themes of Deuteronomy: don’t make idols, don’t hang out with idolaters, don’t even think about idols. In the historical period when this book was written, that meant, don’t worship any god other than the one named Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey who brought you, Israelites, out of Egypt.
Archaeologists tell us that in fact there was a lot of other-god-worshiping happening in the Land of Israel at the time. The goddess Asherah, wife of El, was particularly popular – hence all the commandments against setting up Asherah-poles, as in the verse above.
So we have first, a famous verse commanding the pursuit of justice. Following it, there is a commandment against idolatry.
We now live in a different time.  Our idols are usually not made of stone, and we don’t usually call them “gods.”
Only a year ago, a group of people gathered in Charlottesville, VA, because they loved the statue of a dead man and they wanted to preserve it. It was so important to them that they put on a show of weapons and violence. They marched with torches, with weapons, and chanting angry slogans.
They were there for a more complex set of reasons than a statue of Robert E. Lee. They felt that a respectful memory of the Confederacy is important. They feel their way of life changing, and they don’t like it.
Other people – many of the local citizens of Charlottesville – felt that it was time for that way of life to change, because that way of life, to them, is called racism. That’s why their city government had taken steps to get rid of the statue.
Now I ask you: is it not idolatry to take a statue so seriously that it is worth a show of violence? Is it not idolatry that a woman was killed by someone who felt he was defending the statue?

Racism is in fact a modern brand of idolatry. It insists that some human lives are rightly privileged above others. It contradicts the Jewish concept of B’Tzelem Elohim, that all human beings are made in the image of God.

Now, lest my readers think this is just an exercise in pointing out where other people are messing up, let’s turn this insight upon ourselves.
When we decide to pursue justice, we need to ask ourselves about idolatry. Not “Whom do I worship?” but “What or whom do I prioritize above all else?” Specifically, when I think I’m doing justice work, I need to examine and reexamine my priorities: for whom am I doing this work? Who benefits? What’s my payoff for doing the work?
  • If I fight for justice when “justice” will also keep people I don’t like out of my face or my neighborhood – what am I really worshiping?
  • If I fight for justice, but only if it won’t cost me a dime – what am I really worshiping?
  • If I fight for justice, but only if I always get credit for what I do – what am I really worshiping?
We can be idolaters in the 21st century. If I want to know what I worship, all I really need to do is to take a hard look at what’s most important to me. What am I willing to defend with my reputation, with my money, with my life? 
Whether we call them “gods” or we call them “priorities,” every person alive has them. Even those who say “I don’t believe in God” have something that concerns them above all else. The Christian theologian Paul Tillich wrote at great length about a concept of God he called “Ultimate Concern.”
We all have something that is more important than anything else to us. Whatever that may be, it is the thing we worship.
Whom or what do you prioritize above all else? Don’t tell me in the comments – tell yourself. Then decide if that’s really the worshiper you want to be.
(This is a variation and expansion on a post from 2017.)

#BlogElul — Prepare!

Image: My colleague @imabima has posted a list of topics for Elul on her blog every year since 2012. The image above is this year’s list, days 1-29.

The lovely thing about @imabima’s list of topics is that for the whole month of Elul I don’t have to think of topics. They sit right there in front of me in a tidy list, already set. Today is Day 3 (yes, I missed 1 and 2. I may come back to them later.)

The word PREPARE always brings one verse of the Bible to my mind:

  קוֹל קוֹרֵא–בַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵאלֹהֵינוּ

A voice calls – in the wilderness, clear the road of Adonai!  Go ahead  in the desert, prepare a road to our God. – Isaiah 40: 3, translation mine.

This verse is echoed in the Christian New Testament:

φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ· Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ,

He is a voice calling out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord! Make his paths straight! – Mark 1:3 (ISV translation) 

In both cases, a prophet is speaking to the people: Isaiah in his eponymous book, and in the opening of the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist speaks to his followers, quoting Isaiah.

For the devout, the context is already there. Isaiah 40 is known to devout Jews by its first line “Comfort, comfort my people” – it is the haftarah for the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av. He was speaking to Israel after the disaster of the fall of Jerusalem, comforting them and saying, “Get on with it! Get moving! Buck up! Good things are ahead!”

Devout Christians today understand John to be saying, “Get ready! Jesus is coming!” What many Jews of his time likely heard was, “Remember what Isaiah said! Look forward, good things are ahead!”

Lately I’ve learned about “preppers” – people who focus on preparedness, usually with a bad scenario in mind.  They are preparing for massive accidents, terrorist events and natural disasters. They lay in supplies of nonperishable food and other necessities. Some of them get involved in amateur radio (for when the phone system crashes) or stockpile weaponry (for when the revolution comes.)

Preppers are  getting ready for bad things to happen. I confess have always been a bit of a worrier myself, and I try to be prepared for the things that worry me. I have a supply of water laid in, and a case of peanut butter, and dog food, because I worry about the earthquake fault in my backyard.

The thing is, neither Isaiah nor John were advocating “prepping.” They weren’t saying, “Look ahead, and be afraid!” They were saying, “Something good is coming, you better be ready!”

Today there are upsetting things all over the news. And yes, that Hayward Fault is percolating away beneath my feet. All that is true.

And yet the prophet calls to me,

“Clear the road of Adonai!  Go ahead  in the desert, prepare a road to our God!”

Perhaps, instead of preparing for the worst, my energy is best spent striving towards something better.

 

 

I Cringe When I Read Leviticus 25

Image: An old wooden fence post, criss-crossed with barbed wire. (LeoNeoBoy/Pixabay.)

Such male and female slaves as you may have—it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. – Leviticus 25:44

We are reading Parashat Behar-Bechukotai this week, in which these words appear.

There are verses in the Torah that are downright painful to read, and Chapter 25 of Leviticus, with its rules for Jews keeping slaves, is one of them for me. These verses have been used to justify the practice of slavery in many different times and places in history. These verses justified the keeping of slaves by Jews, and they were cited to justify the keeping of slaves in my birth state of Tennessee.

Over time we have learned better. Jews no longer keep slaves. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gives a summary of the history of those changes in The Slow End of Slavery, a d’var Torah on Parashat Mishpatim.  So what can we get out of reading these verses again and again, year after year?

First, while the practice of slavery is in our past, it is part of our history. As recently as the American Civil War, there were Jews as well as Christians who used the Torah to justify their ownership of other human beings. The memory of that should keep us humble. We should never forget that there may well be things we do lightly today that future generations will judge harshly.

These verses remind us that there are times and places in which we still, today, profit from immoral advantages over other human beings. For instance, “redlining”  was banned 50 years ago, but the evil it did still impacts black families today.

Look at our synagogue communities: we make it difficult for Jews with brown or black skins to feel at home in our synagogues. We are quick to assume that they must be hired help or dangerous strangers. We leave them standing alone at the oneg. Even if we don’t say or do something overtly cruel, we fail to greet them with the same enthusiasm we might extend to a member who “looks Jewish” to us. If you don’t believe me, do a little reading. One good beginning is Kippahed While Black: The Troubling Resurgence of “Schvartze” and “Kushi” a short opinion piece in the Forward by Michael Twitty.

We American Jews have a favorite photo that we like to trot out whenever the subject of civil rights or race comes up:

KingHeschel-photo

In the photo, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) marches at Selma with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr in March 1965.* But we speak too often of this photo as if the work is done: “See! There’s a rabbi there! One of ours!” We speak of it as somehow each of us should get credit for Rabbi Heschel’s walk.

The trouble with this is that each Jew is responsible for their own self. ALL of us are commanded – individually! – to free the prisoner, to feed the hungry, to love the stranger, and to pursue justice. We can’t slide by on the righteousness of a single rabbi who took courageous action 53 years ago. We cannot stand by while our neighbors bleed, while African Americans are executed for holding cell phones on their own family’s property.

Each of us – me included! – needs to ask “What am I doing about racial injustice today?” We need to ask it not in the past tense, and certainly not by proxy. We need to be open to improving our behavior. We need to drop the defensiveness that keeps us from learning when we’ve messed up. We need to not be so fragile when someone points out that what we’ve said or done was, yes, racist.

We can do this. I have great faith in our ability to learn and to make change. We can do it in the voting booth. We can do it by speaking up at racist “jokes.” We can do it by biting our tongues at phrases like “Not all white people…” We can do it by inviting speakers and leaders of color to our congregation to speak. We can do it by including in our tzedakah budgets organizations that serve people of color. We can do it by doing the good work and then not insisting on credit.

Every year when Leviticus 25 comes around, I cringe. I don’t like being reminded of past wrongs – no one likes it. But if I use that discomfort to open my heart, to open my ears, then it will all be worth it.  Shabbat shalom!

*For more about that iconic photo, read Susannah Heschel on the Legacy of Her Father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Civil Rights Movement, an article published in Moment Magazine in April, 2015.

 

Guest Post: Dear Israel

The following post is by musician Beth Hamon. She writes with great heart and simplicity about some very complex matters. I asked for her permission to share it here with you, my readers. For more about Beth and her music, you can check out her website. – Rabbi Adar

Dear Israel,

You and I don’t really get each other very much, I admit it.
I don’t get why people tell me I should want to move there.
You don’t get why Portland is my Jerusalem. 
I don’t get how you can be simultaneously so loving towards certain Members Of the Tribe and so awful towards, well, a whole lot of everyone else (see: women, people of color, Palestinians).
You don’t get why I think it’s possible to be dynamically and fully Jewish wherever you are — and with whomever you love.

And yet, when I hear your name I still stop for the tiniest moment and listen.
I notice.
I ponder.
I wonder about what it means to be connected to a place so far away, and to Jews whose temperament is so different from mine. (You’re not the first to tell me I’m too nice or too polite.)

Look, I’m super-broke and probably always will be; so it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever be able to go and meet you in person.
So let’s agree to try and understand each other and respect each other a whole lot more from afar.
Can we work on that, you and me?
I’m willing to keep wrestling.
Are you?
Happy 70th birthday. May you have many more in good health.
I hope and pray that someday soon you’ll know real, lasting peace.
Thanks for being here — Beth

Shabbat Shalom! – Tzav

Parashat Tzav takes us deeper into the Book of Leviticus, and into the minutiae of Temple sacrificial practice. This week we see the sacrifices from the priest’s point of view, especially the week-long ordination rite. What can any of this possibly have to say to 21st century Jews? Take a look at these divrei Torah and see!

Giving Thanks in the Present Moment by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Tzav: Oil and Blood by Maggid Melissa Carpenter

The Life Blood and the Nefesh by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Leadership, Precision, and the Power of Ritual by Rabbi Rachel Sabath- Beit Halachmi

“Head, Shoulders, Knees & Toes by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

The Convert Who Loved Nice Clothes by Rabbi Ruth Adar