Shabbat Shalom! – Ki Tavo

Image: An open Torah belonging to Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA. Photo by Susan Krauss.

First fruits, blessings and curses – that’s a quick summary of this week’s Torah portion. It’s timely, coming as it does just before the High Holy Days, when we are asking ourselves:

  • What are the “first fruits” of my labor?
  • What do I share with the world and my community?
  • Which mitzvot do I keep?
  • Which mitzvot do I fail to keep?
  • What curses do I bring down upon myself and others by my behavior?

That last question isn’t very modern sounding at first blush, but it has modern implications. I do not expect a lightning bolt to strike every person on earth who does wrong. However, most mitzvot have consequences both for keeping them and for failing to keep them:

  • If I tell lies, I spread confusion in the world.
  • If I injure other people, they hurt.
  • If I fail to speak up for the underdog, the world will be a worse place.
  • If I do not pay my employees properly, they will go hungry.
  • If I use the environment carelessly, the world will be depleted and full of poison.

… and so on.

Mitzvot have consequences.

This week’s divrei Torah:

When We Reach the Place of Promise – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Unintelligible but Meaningful  – Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Ki Tavo – Rabbi Seth Goldstein (Podcast)

Creating Our Own Narrative – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

You’re the Best! – Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Podcast – Rabbi Eleanor Steinman

Maimonides on Conversion – Rabbi Ruth Adar

 

Is There One Right Way?

Image: A confused child. Photo by Sergey Nemo, via pixabay.com

There is a story about a woman who was teaching her daughter-in-law how to make brisket. She said, “Always have the butcher cut off the narrow end of the brisket. Otherwise it won’t be kosher.” Now, the daughter-in-law had taken an Introduction to Judaism class before her conversion, and she thought that sounded odd. She called her rabbi and asked about it.

“That IS interesting,” the rabbi said. “Ask your mother-in-law who taught her to do that.” And the mother-in-law said that her mother had taught her just exactly that (and what is wrong with that rabbi, anyway, that she doesn’t know the rules of kashrut?)

“Ahh,” said the rabbi, who was going to be visiting the Home for Jewish Parents the next day. “I’ll get back to you.” And the rabbi made sure to visit the grandma-in-law while she was at the Home the next day.

“I always made brisket that way because I had a short pan!” said the grandma-in-law. “We didn’t have money to buy either a whole brisket or a new pan, so I always just had the butcher cut me off a piece!”

Every Jewish family has its own way of doing things. Some cut the challah; others tear it. Some put a mezuzah only on the front door; others put one on every door but the bathroom door. Some have roasted chicken for Passover; others have roast lamb.

Be a little skeptical any time that someone tells you there’s only one correct way to do something Jewish. It is true that there are some things that are so firmly part of the tradition that you don’t want to mess with them: don’t bring bread to a Passover seder, for instance. But there are other things that may be a firm tradition for only part of the Jewish people (e.g. some Sephardic Jews eat lamb on Passover, Ashkenazi Jews regard lamb as forbidden for the seder.)

There are also some things that are only “Jewish law” for a very limited community or even a single family. We refer to those things as minhag hamakom [custom of the place.] Inside that limited community, those practices carry a great deal of weight, but outside they are not required. Often, those practices begin as something practical (as in the brisket story) or as someone’s private piety. Others copy, and then it becomes “Jewish Law” for that community.

If you are curious about a practice, you can always ask, “Where did you learn that?” You can also ask a rabbi about it. It is always good to know why you are doing something – otherwise practice devolves into superstition.

Some family customs are beautiful and worth keeping. Others may be due for a little update. A little curiosity and a little study can reveal all sorts of interesting things about that “one right way” to do something Jewish!

The Legacy of Justice Louis D. Brandeis | Rabbi Ed Bernstein

Rabbi Ed Bernstein has written a wonderful article about one of the giants of American Jewish history. I want to share it with you, both so you can read it but also to acquaint you with his blog.

https://rabbiedbernstein.com/2016/09/09/the-legacy-of-justice-louis-d-brandeis/

Social Media Inventory, Part 2

Image: A to-do list, and a partially peeled orange. Photo by jedidja via pixabay.com.

How does my behavior online stack up against the values of Torah? This is an environment of words and images, and our tradition has a lot to say about the use of words and images. Part 1 of the Social Media Inventory is available here.

One who says something in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world, as it says (Esther 2:22): “Esther told the king in Mordechai’s name.” – Pirkei Avot 6:6

Do I credit my sources online, including sources for images? “Cut-and-paste” functions on our computers make it very easy to lift information from one page to use it in our own writing. Crediting the words of others is a Jewish value; failing to do so is stealing. 

We use images on the Internet to convey information in much the same way we do words. Every image has a person behind it: someone took the photo, drew the picture, made the graphic. While images for worship have a different set of rules in Jewish tradition, images that we use to convey information should get the same treatment as words: credit your sources.

The ancient rabbis balanced the need to pass along good information and the need to credit sources by using the format, “So-and-so said…” We can and should do the same.

“You shall not go up and down as a tale-bearer among your people.” – Leviticus 19:16

Do I gossip online? Torah forbids tale-bearing: any talking about others, true or false, beyond that which is absolutely necessary. The principle in Jewish tradition is that all things are assumed to be secret unless those involved specifically say otherwise. So all “celebrity gossip” is out the window. The same is true for unnecessary discussion of our neighbors on Facebook or NextDoor.com. It is as wrong to listen to or read loose talk as it is to spread it around. The standard I apply for myself is: Do I need this information? Or do I simply want it?

Can online reviews be a form of improper speech? Rabbi Meir Tamari teaches that the rules of speech also apply to talking about businesses, because saying something negative about a business can endanger the livelihood of the owner and everyone who works there.

It is improper speech to post, “Ploni dry-cleaners are thieves.” However, a review about our own experience with specific details could be appropriate, for instance, “I used to take my dry-cleaning to Ploni, but after they twice lost things of mine, I switched to another cleaners.” Posting reviews to Yelp or similar services when angry is not a good practice, because it is easy to step over the line when we are angry. (Rabbi Tamari’s examples are from pre-Internet times before review services were prevalent. I cite his teaching but the examples are mine.) Saying, “I’ve heard that Ploni Cleaners is no good” is irresponsible speech forbidden by Torah.

News is a tricky area, especially since many news services have blurred the line between news and entertainment.  A good citizen should be well-informed. However, some “news” is more “gossip” than “news.” Again, did I need that information to be a good citizen? Or was I just titillated by the headline and could not resist clicking?

He who embarrasses his fellow is as if he has shed blood (killed him). – Bava Metzia 58b

Do I behave online in a way that might cause embarrassment to another? This is related to the issue of gossip. Our tradition equates embarrassing someone with murdering them. All forms of online bullying are therefore completely out of the question. Talk about others frequently has the potential to embarrass. The important thing is to stop and think before we hit send; if there is the possibility for embarrassment, it is better to be silent.

Photography and graphics have potential for embarrassment. Ask before posting a photo of another person. Posting a photo of another person without their knowledge may also carry criminal or civil penalties. When in doubt, don’t.

The month of Elul is a time to take stock of our behavior, to hold it up against our highest ideals. There are areas in these two posts where most of us has some room for improvement; the important thing is to do better in the future.

What have I failed to include in these two posts? What would you add?

 

Social Media Inventory, Part 1

Image: A checklist and tools. Photo by stevepb via pixabay.com.

How does my behavior online stack up against the values of Torah? This is an environment of words and images, and our tradition has a lot to say about the use of words and images. Take this inventory to do a personal review:

Nitai of Arbel says: “Distance [yourself] from a bad neighbor, do not befriend an evildoer and do not despair of punishment.” – Pirkei Avot 1:7

How do I spend my time online? Do I use this resource to learn and to converse with people who are a good influence on me? Or do I waste valuable time on worthless activities? Is there anything I do online that I feel I must keep secret? Is there anything I would be embarrassed to have come to light?

Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven’s name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for [the sake of] heaven’s name — it is not destined to endure. What is [an example of an argument] for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is [an example of an argument] not for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation. – Pirkei Avot 5:15

What has my goal been in arguments online? According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a 13th century Catalan rabbi named Menachem Meiri taught that Hillel and Shammai argued in order to uncover the truth. They argued with great energy, but it was essentially a joint venture. The argument of Korach was based in ill-will: Korach wished to prevail over Moses, and humiliate him. Korach wanted to win the argument. So the first question: when I get into an argument with someone, am I like Hillel or like Korach?

When R. Eliezer was about to depart, his disciples paid him a visit and requested him to teach them only one more thing. And he said unto them: Go, and be careful, each of you, in honoring your neighbor; and when you are praying, remember before whom you stand and pray, and for the observation of these you will have a share in the world to come. – Minor Tractate Derech Eretz Rabbah, Chapter 3

How do I treat other people online? Am I a mensch?  Am I careful in honoring my neighbor? Do I treat other people with the respect due other human beings? Or do I count some as beneath any need for polite speech? Do I sometimes forget that every human being contains the divine spark, some element of the Holy One, perhaps very well hidden?

… continued at Social Media Inventory Part 2

5777: Jewish Years Explained

Image: Street sign in Jerusalem “Happy New Year St.” Photo Mt Scopus Radio  Some rights reserved

We’re about to begin the year 5777 and sooner or later, someone will wonder, “5777 years from WHAT?”

The simple answer: 5777 years from the creation of the world, as determined by counting back years in the Bible.

You and I both know that human beings weren’t created on the sixth day after the Big Bang. We could get into a very interesting discussion about “days” in the context of creation (literal days? or something more metaphorical? or is the Creation story not really about time at all?). Or we could stomp off harumphing about how the Bible and science are completely incompatible.

The truth is that religion and science had a battle long ago, and many of us decided that scientific method was better at addressing the “how” of the world, so we quit looking to the Bible for science. Torah explores the meaning of creation, a question that science can’t and won’t address.

BUT – long before we abandoned the notion of a six day Creation a few thousand years ago, we Jews began numbering the years by a certain pattern. We remember many things in terms of their placement in Jewish time. Also we are “a stiff-necked people” and we cling to some things just to be stubborn. So even though it is a bit anachronistic, we still number our years by the old system. On Rosh Hashanah morning, the shaliach [service leader] will announce the arrival of the year Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy Seven.

So the more complex answer to the question, “Why 5777?” is “Tradition!”

 

High Holy Days for Beginners, 5777

Image: Rabbi Michal Loving of Temple Beth Orr in Coral Springs, FL blows the shofar to announce the new year. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Loving.

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on October 3, 2016. It will begin the Jewish Year 5777. Here are some basic facts to know about the holiday season:

Happy Jewish New Year!

Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and will do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”] For other greetings, see A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings.

First, Prepare!

Preparation for the High Holy Day Season began at sundown on Friday September 2, 2016 with Rosh Chodesh Elul. Jews worldwide take the month of Elul to examine their lives in the light of Torah, looking for things about ourselves that need to change. For more about preparation, look at Books to Prepare for the High Holy Days and Teshuvah 101. Both are short entries on this blog.

Days of Awe

Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.

Teshuvah: Sin & Repentance

The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even inadvertently, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”] Teshuvah 101 explains this concept in more detail – it isn’t about beating ourselves up, it’s about change for the better.

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe.

Tickets for Prayer?

Very important: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the holiday (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.

There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to direct you to a synagogue which offers free High Holy Day services.  Some synagogues offer free High Holy Day tickets for college students or members of the military. If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services.

Get the Most out of Your High Holy Days

To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.

There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many classes in synagogues start immediately after the holidays. If you are interested in an online basic introduction to judaism, check out Learn About Judaism Online.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5777!