Rabbi's Blog

Darkness  (Bo 5777)

02/15/2017 04:43:19 PM

Feb15

When I was young and lived in the Old City in Jerusalem, our family was in a big apartment. My room was across what seemed like an impossibly long and dark hallway to the kitchen, where I imagined my parents always were. I don’t remember much else about the apartment but I remember the hallway as a frightening place…

In our parashah this week, Bo, the Torah recounts to us the final intensification of the plagues. Finally, Pharaoh lets the people go and thus begins the exodus from Egypt. The last plague is makat bechorot, the plague of the first-born. But before, is the 9th plague, darkness.

A darkness descends onto the land of Egypt for three days and three days. A question that at times comes up is – what was so bad about the plague of darkness? What made the plague of darkness the 9thplague – nearly the last straw? Worse than the 7th plague – the fiery hail? Or even the first – the Nile turning to blood?

The Torah says that the darkness was so thick that for three days the Egyptians could not stand or sit. They could not see each other even if they stood in front of one another. The darkness was all-enveloping. According to the Midrash, it was the darkness of Gehenom, of hell — that fell upon the Egyptians. Modern commentators have suggested it was not a physical darkness – it was an internal darkness. A depression. They could not get out of their beds for three days. They were surrounded by it.

It was not only the discomfort of not being able to see. It was the spirit of despair, of facing uncertainty. They did not know when or even if it would end. It brought out the worst in them. The Lithuanian rabbi, Even Ha’ezel comments – what is the worst darkness? The deepest? It is one as the Torah says, where one cannot see one’s fellow. Where we do not share the pain of our fellow human beings. They do not share ours. We lose our humanity and understanding of the other. We are paralyzed and society descends into chaos.

This is the power of darkness. It creates fear and uncertainty. In its shadows, we never know what we are seeing and what is truly there. We cannot see the faces of others. We become lost in our own selves.

The medieval commentator Seforno says what was unique about the darkness? He exclaims regular darkness is not in fact real. It does not exist in itself. It is only in the absence of light that darkness can exist. When light shines upon it, it immediately chases away the darkness as though it had never been.

But the darkness that struck Egypt was real. It was so thick that the light of candles could not penetrate it. There was no way for it to be dispersed. It was a supernatural plague.

In our lives, we too often mistake one darkness for the other. The darkness of this world is illusionary. It is there but on one level, it has no existence in itself. When we shine light unto it, it must disperse. We can always chase it away.

The darkness that struck Egypt was otherworldly, supernatural. Not one that we encounter. We – at times – can sense its presence. It prevents us from getting up. It stops us from feeling the pain of our fellow human beings. It frightens us. It obscures our vision. It can last for days at a time. Even then, it is up to us to fight the sense that it was like the plague of darkness. It is just the regular darkness with a shadow of the other.

And even the plague of darkness itself was not impenetrable! As the Torah says, in the dwelling places of the Israelites, there was light. Light poured through into Goshen. According to Reb Shlomo of Radomsk, it was the light of Shabbat. The way we live our lives, what we choose to consider holy and precious can pierce through even that thickest darkness.

We may look at the dark hallway separating us from safety and security and believe it is never ending and unsurmountable. When the light is shined upon it, our spirits are raised, and we know it never really existed.

“How Good and Pleasant It is for Brethren to Dwell Together in Unity” (Toldot 5777)

01/19/2017 04:12:35 PM

Jan19
“How good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” – Parashat Toldot 5777
 
The story of two brothers struggling. One of the oldest stories in the world. From the womb itself. The elder came out red, and the younger holding onto to his heel. In the stomach of their mother they turned and wrestled. As our commentators say, they fought.
 
The midrash states, the mother herself could tell that they were opposites. When she passed by discussions of lofty subjects of Torah, one moved. When she walked by the places of idol worship, the other shook. Their struggle just another shadow of the first murder in the Torah of Abel by Cain in a fit of jealousy and rage.
 
Hine ma tov Uma Naim shevet achim gam Yachad.
Brothers and sisters should dwell together in unity.
 
They are closest kin that can be. They share the same blood…
 
But what should be closest is turned into the most heated and explosive of bonds. Jealousy, misunderstanding, competition for the attention of their father and mother – earthly and heavenly.
 
Opposites, as Abel and Cain, the shepherd, who watched over his flocks and the farmer, engaged in agriculture. Isaac and Yishamel, fathers of Jews and Muslims. In our parashah Yaakov and Esav, Jacob and Esau. Later Joseph, the dreamer, and his brothers, far more practical. Their struggles and conflict as opposites drives all of the tension in the book of Genesis.
 
In our parashah, Esau is the mighty hunter and man of the field, while Jacob is the contemplative man who dwelt in tents. Their tensions derive from their opposing characters. Esau is hairy at birth, comes out ruddy, and is impulsive. He takes wives among the Caananites. When he is hungry, returning from the field, he sells his birthright to his brother for a bowl of soup. But he also cares about his father’s blessing and lineage. He wails and sobs wildly when he finds out that his brother has stolen it.
 
Jacob is smooth skinned. Mild in manners, reflective. He is clever and knows how to manipulate his stronger older brother. He is a more fitting vessel for his father’s blessing according to the Torah but he is also the one who deceives his own father. Who must flee his brother’s wrath.
 
In the eyes of the Torah, the conflict is unavoidable. There is but one prize and both seek it out. The Torah uses these founding stories to explain the strife between nations and different people. With Yishmael, the father of all Arab nations. With Esau the father of Edom, the ancient kingdom that no longer exists but that was an old rival of Israel’s and that, in time, our tradition associated with Rome and later Christianity. It is a way of stating the reality that our differences are not just cosmetic. They run deep. They go back to initial stories of twins, of opposing warring brothers.
 
Jacob and Esau’s struggle in the womb continues throughout their lives as they vie for their father’s blessing and inheritance. What is by right Esau’s is stolen furtively by Jacob, with the help of his mother. If people war, our tradition is telling us it is because they are almost ontologically different, opposites.
 
We look across the divide and the person that we see is other.
 
We can all imagine how Jacob saw his brother Esau. A wild big brother who was undeserving of his father’s misplaced love and of the family blessing. A brute who did not care for the family traditions. Who was willing to sell them for a bowl of soup. Not many of us venture into Esau’s eyes. But we can imagine what he saw too. A younger brother who did not respect him or follow in his footsteps. Who cared not for him and their father’s love of game. Who retreated in the tents without taking a stand for the family and tribe. A younger brother forever plotting to take what was not his by right.
 
We easily side with Jacob because he is the heir of our tradition. And with the others, Isaac, Abel…
 
We see in Jacob the strengths of our people. Smart, favoring the life of the shepherd over the life of the hunter. Immersed in learning. Understanding of people. Deserving of God’s blessing.
 
We see that the differences between them are vast. The commentators say they were destined to be two peoples, nations, even religions.
 
One blessed, one cursed.
 
But even at the end of our parashah, even as Jacob is fleeing, there is a verse referring to Rebekkah that calls “‘her mother of Jacob and Esau.” Even with all going on she still loved Esau. Even though she did favor Isaac, there was never a moment when she did not love her older son. She was still his mother. He was still her son.
 
In our greater moments, our tradition also sees it and the midrashic tradition teaches: The Messiah will not come until the tears of Esau have stopped.
 
There is a recognition that the tears of Esau might not be our own but the messiah will only come when his and his descendant’s tears, and hurt at all the injustices against them will – also finally stop.
 
There is a recognition that the pain at the center of our universe is the pain of brothers and sisters hurt.
 
Though we may instinctively take a side, be part of a side, because we think differently, we look differently. We are hairy where they are smooth, or smooth where they are hairy. We stole their blessing, we believe in good faith. They believe in outright theft – we are still brothers, sisters…
 
The messiah will only come when the tears of Esau also stop. When the tears of the other also stop. When their injustice is understood and addressed.
 
Though we may not see it, we are all children of the same father and mother. Even in the most difficult moments, we are still children to them.
 
There is a Chassidic interpretation of the midrash about Esau. It asks the question –The messiah will only come when Esau’s tears have stopped? What if the tears of Israel continue? What if they are still weeping and weeping? Then the messiah will still come? It cannot be!!
 
It answers that the tears of Esau are not just the tears of the other. Of the despised enemy. They are the tears of all human beings. What unites us all is that we are all crying –for the loss of the closeness of the Divine Presence, the loss of unity that we experienced in the garden that led to the first murder. To the first struggle between brothers. We all – at one level – are the hurt brother. We all feel like our blessing has been taken away from us. All of the hurt and conflict in the world stems from that wound. The struggles of the opposites who are brothers, even twins, is a symbol for the innate brokenness of the world. Whether we are on one side or the other, we are both Esau.
 
Our weeping is natural. It is because of the pain we are suffering –so we demand a better life for ourselves, less conflict, better materials goods, more opportunities. But if we weep for another person, for their pain, for their suffering, for what they have gone through in their lives… We come a little bit closer to restoring the Divine Presence. Restoring the bond. Repairing the world. Realizing that wholeness will only come back when the two halves are once again united. When we can finally see that their heart is our heart.
 
I would like to invite all of us to spend one-minute thinking in silence about a person, whether real, or a typecast, someone you argue with in your mind, whom you believe is your opposite, and try to enter their hearts and shed a tear for them.
 
How good and pleasant it is
That brothers dwell together in unity.
It is like fine oil on the head
Running down onto the beard,
The beard of Aaron,
That comes down over the collar of his robe;
Like the dew of Hermon
That falls upon the mountains of Zion.
There the LORD ordained blessing,
Everlasting life.

“Coping with the State of the World” (Rosh Hashanah 5777)

01/19/2017 04:10:08 PM

Jan19
Teshuva, Tefillah utzeddakh – maavirin et roah ha gzeira.
 
Repentance, Prayer, and charity lessen the severity, the evil of the decree. The line that is at the center of all of the High Holidays. But what is the evil decree?
 
In this year, I don’t think it has been hard to see what was the evil of the decree –for our society and country, for our people, for the world. We have seen terrorist attacks and experienced the fear and despair that they sow: Orlando, San Bernadino…Jerusalem, Tel Aviv Paris, Brussels, Nice, and countless others…
 
And you don’t have to go so far. Chicago has seen more murders and death than in recent years. Just there, on the other side of the neighborhood, of Austin. I remember when my wife told me she was having trouble sleeping after she heard about the murder of an OPRF high schooler this summer.
 
The societal divisions over the role of police and of the persistence of racial inequalities. Heated arguments exposing rifts and differences that are deeper than ever, that are shocking.
 
A Middle East still in flames. In Syria. Israel no closer to peace, but with daily conflict and violence ever closer, more intractable. More personal than ever. From guns and explosions to knives in the back.
 
And right here, one of the most divided political seasons that anybody can remember.
 
And beyond all of these struggles, the roah ha gzeira, the evil circumstances of the decree, that are over all of our heads this year, are our own life circumstances that we are praying for. Those questions and loads that we each have weighing on our shoulders and souls and hearts.
 
On Rosh Hashannah, we wish that the decree of the next year be a better one.
The evil lessened. A more joyous and worry free year. A lighter of spirit year. A sweeter year.
 
But what can we do?
 
There were too many times from this pulpit this year that I had to dedicate a misheberach or a kaddish yatom, a mourner’s kaddish.
 
What can we do?
 
According to the unetaneh tokef prayer, it is tzedakkah, tefillah, u’teshuvah, that lessen the severity of the decree.
 
Charity, Repentance, and prayer.
 
They are the tools we possess to combat the evil decree.
 
But how?
 
One of the times I have experienced the roah ha’gzeira, the evil of the decree, most powerfully was in France after the Charlie Hebdo attacks a little over a year ago. A story that has been on my mind this year as the terrorism in France has continued, in a country that I grew up in and where my parents still live.
 
I was in France during the Charlie Hebdo attacks. I can remember the atmosphere of fear, despair, and chaos. It was their first major terrorist attack and it struck at the very foundations of the country. Terrorists affiliated with ISIS stormed the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and opened fire on the editorial staff in their weekly news meeting.
 
The whole country was beset by an evil they had not known previously. (fast) The killers were at loose. The public feared new attacks. Everyone here can remember the same shock and fears after 9/11. There were police and military all over the country. What struck the country so deeply was that it was an attack on its most dear values and symbols. Free speech and political expression – that were decimated before their eyes.
 
I was in the middle of it as I was scheduled to travel from the south of France to Marseilles in the days after the attacks to lead services over Shabbat at the Conservative synagogue there.
 
What precautions could be taken? – I remember thinking as I travelled on the trains in the heavy atmosphere of those days.
 
I did not wear my kippah, because I knew that Jews were primary targets of the terrorists but also has been targeted for years by more petty criminals.
 
And I was a little uneasy when I noticed that my carriage was mainly populated by visibly Muslim French passengers and that the person sitting next to me was a young Muslim man.
 
During the train ride, I hid my Torah reading, curling the page my way so that he wouldn’t see the Hebrew.
 
But eventually I relaxed and he read over my shoulder, and I almost jumped in my seat when I heard, etes vous rabbin? Are you a rabbi?
 
I had to answer ‘oui,’ yes – he asked me why aren’t you wearing a kippa then?
 
And he was a good person. He was critical of me for not wearing a kippah and giving in to a fear that he dismissed. And he was friendly and curious about my background and being a rabbi. He had never met one before. I don’t think he had ever met a Jew before.
 
We had disagreements. He asked me what I thought about the actions of the Israeli military? And he accused Israel of doing to the Palestinians what had been done to the Jews in World War 2.
 
I argued back with another narrative. He paused. He had never heard the arguments. He had never heard another side. As we parted, he seemed satisfied from the conversation and said shalom to me as the train stopped.
 
In that situation, we had each learned a lesson: to be more charitable to each other. We cannot judge other people because of appearances. We can’t let our fears get ahead of us. And the situation is always more complicated that we think. We may hear one point of view our entire lives and then when we’re up against the other in real life, it can suddenly feel very different.) Exchange and being charitable to others creates movement and flow when there had been blockage and barriers.
 
That is tzeddakah, to be charitable. To seek connection. As we do during the days of awe. We ask for forgiveness from those we wronged and look to repair relationships that have suffered over the year. As the tradition asks of us –we approach them three times, even if they rebuff us.
 
We force ourselves to understand that we too have been entrenched in a position. And to integrate that dialogue, restarting a relationship does not mean losing what we stand for. It only means taking our position – what we think – and bringing it into real life face to face interaction. Right or left –out of the realm of our heads and emotions and into reality. Our distrust is lessened after talking. My distrust was lessened after talking to the man on the train. It removed a cloud that I had hung on everybody’s heads there. It made my step lighter.
 
Being charitable faced with religious or political divisions and blockages opens up new possibilities.
 
It also open ups possibilities in our own personal growth. In the realm of our struggles with our personal problems that we hide away and never want to look at in the face. We build mountains of emotions and fears surrounding them. We give them more life than they deserve. Tzedakkah, is also about being charitable with ourselves. Giving ourselves the space to look at our problems and creating a dialogue with them. We are not the only ones to have them. They are not that terrible. It lessens the evil of the decree to force them into the open. It allows us to see them for what they are.
 
But there are times when dialogue, exchange, being charitable is not enough. When the flow that it creates is dissipated by the weight of the evil, by new events that cloud it even further.
 
And that Friday as I walked out of the train in Marseille after parting with the man I sat next to, I got a call from home. Terrorists had taken Jewish hostages at a crowded kosher supermarket in Paris.
 
I spent the rest of the afternoon with my hosts watching the news.
 
The city’s security liaison advised us not to hold Friday night services but we had them anyways.
 
The congregation had a Friday night dinner planned and far more people came than planned. To show their resilience. To be together. They wanted to show that they were not afraid. They were going to carry on their lives as normal and stand up for their beliefs.
 
They would fight the evil with the values that they held dear. Community, Tradition, Shabbat –Life not Death.
 
It’s a response that is familiar to anybody who has spent time in Israel. The policy there is that after a terror attack, the police and other services clear the scene as quickly as possible and set it back to normal. They refuse to let the terrorist’s win. That is the way they deal with waves of terrorism.
 
I remember living in Israel during the second Intifada when there were buses exploding sometimes 2-3 times a week in the Jerusalem but people continued to take the bus. The message was you carry on, and fight the evil by embracing what you stand for and love.
 
In our own battles, when we can find the courage inside of us, it can suddenly shed light on problems that appeared insurmountable before. It can fill us with the power to overturn them, even problems and habits that have beset us for decades, our whole lives. It is our capacity for teshuvah, for returning to who we are and what we believe in that gives us the strength to surmount difficulty and to undergo transformation. It is why teshuvah, repentance or return is the foremost work of the holidays.
 
For the French, at that moment, it was a return the values of the Republic. And that weekend I joined the head of the Conservative movement in France and we travelled to Paris to take part in a march that drew millions.
 
The whole country was seeking to return to what they stood for, to what could unite them, fill them with hope, courage, and positivity to find a new way forward.
 
They held up signs stating Je suis Charlie Hebdo, I am Charlie Hebdo, (power) Je suis Juif, I am Jewish, and even Je suis Musulman, I am Muslim.
 
And they marched singing the French National anthem, the Marseillaise. Aux Armes Citoyens, to your weapons citizens, formez vos bataillions, form your lines, marchons marchons, let’s march let’s march. A melody that I had never connected to, evoking the violence and purges of the French Revolution. But on that day as I heard it rise and fall among the crowds, I felt its power as a battle cry for liberty, fraternity, and equality.
 
Teshuvah, return, to who we really are, where we came from, our deepest values and beliefs is also what gives us power and strength in our personal lives to transcend and conquer any difficulty, any obstacle. To find the place of eternity within and to face the evil before us. To sound the shofar of warfare against evil, inner and outer. To state our willingness to engage in the battle.
 
It is an aspect that I also thought about a few weeks ago at our 9/11 commemoration, how that event pushed this country to fall back on what it stood for, to unite… that was a way to lessen the evil of the decree.
 
By returning to what we believe, our values, and marching with them, filling ourselves with hope and courage, taking a stand in the battle against what is good and right… We become filled with justice and the spirit of goodness. It is one of the best and most powerful instincts of humankind, teshuvah, return.
 
But unfortunately, there are times when even that is not enough.
 
The French marched by the millions, asserted the values and ideals they held dear, and their love of life, not death, their willingness to be charitable.
 
But then, they were struck with another more devastating attack on them and their ideals. The Bataclan terrorist attack this past November. And later this year, the attack in Nice when a truck driver slammed into a crowd convened on Bastille Day, the French national day that celebrates the values and ideals of the country.
 
At that moment, even if in their hearts they did not want let go of their values, the French did not return to the streets. The moment had passed. What now?
 
We all know how powerful the decree can sometimes be, the evil…
 
In our own selves, we can muster all of our strength, all of our power, go back to our ideals, to what we stand for, but there it still is – the evil staring us in the face, filling us with dread and fear. It’s not going to be so easily defeated, so quickly. We marched and found our courage and now we are facing it. But now what? How do we accomplish the next stage of the work? How do we undo situations and conflicts that have brewed over decades or longer? Bad blood and out of control ideologies that have festered over long periods of time. Deeply ingrained ways of thinking and habits within societies and ourselves. Grooves in our minds and hearts. How do we conquer those?
 
The answer of our tradition is tefillah, prayer.
 
We often think of prayer as the first response. A truism. ‘We offer our prayers, we are thinking of you.’
 
But prayer is also the last resort, when we are called upon to overcome the seemingly insurmountable, within ourselves, our own societies and the wider world.
 
When we have to reach further even than ideals and values.
 
The shofar is our call to battle, but even more than that, the shofar on Rosh Hashannah is the call, the prayer that resounds from the depths of our soul, that finally pierces through.
 
Prayer is the vehicle to transcend, to go beyond our own finite powers and touch that which is eternal and infinite. To draw on a power we never knew we had. To turn to the highest heaven, and the deepest place inside of our souls for strength, for faith, for courage to make the leap.
 
Prayer, tefillah is what we spend the most time doing here in synagogue during the High Holidays, trying to strike the note on our souls where we cry out and call out on the Creator of the Universe to come to our rescue, when we go deeper and deeper until we find what we need to go forward. When surrounded by darkness we grab the last ray of light, with the firm belief, that morning could come in the next second. As psalms say, ‘weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
 
Prayer is saying – ‘I cannot do it alone’, ‘I need to hold Your hand’ and ‘I need you to hold mine’ – ‘together we can accomplish anything!’ We can conquer parts of ourselves that deeply ingrained, we can surmount divides that are centuries old. We can find the strength to power through the evil decree that is facing us, staring us in the eyes.
 
Prayer is not absolving ourselves of the responsibility. It’s digging and reaching as far as we can to transcend what is seemingly impossible.
 
It’s having faith in the ultimate goodness of creation and of the Creator, however we envision Him or Her. Having faith ultimately in humanity, even in the darkest of times. And in ourselves.
 
The model for prayer in Judaism is Hannah whom we read of in our haftarah this morning, who could not have children but went to the ancient tabernacle and laid bare her soul, poured out her heart, gave over everything to the point that the High Priest thought she was drunk and scolded her. That is the kind of prayer, our tradition teaches, that has the power to change ourselves and the world.
 
 
 
We need all three.
 
Tzedakkah, being charitable with others, opening the flow of communication, of coexistence, saying we’re sorry, accepting others’ apologies, lessening hate and fear, lessening confusion, bringing light to what is not real, to what is fantasy even as conflict and problems remain.
 
To that end, this year, at our synagogue I am looking to start an interfaith dialogue group with Christians and Muslims communities in our area. To together build bridges of understanding, dialogue and mutual respect.
 
Teshuvah, going back to what we believe. Returning to who we really are and what we stand for. To return to the values and ideals that define us and march with them as a rallying battle cry against the force of the evil of the decree. Sounding the shofar against fear and oppression, against that which seeks to do us harm. Saying we will not budge from who we are and what we believe in, even in the face of those who are willing to do almost anything so that we do.
 
We do this work here at the synagogue with our educational programs, with new and exciting classes, of meditation, study, and lively discussion. These are tools to help us learn how to return to who we are, to learn about what Jews have believed in and sacrificed their lives for –for thousands years.
 
Finally Tefillah, when all other doors have closed, we use the power of prayer, the prayer of Channah, to transcend our own limitations, to accomplish that which seems impossible. We use the power of prayer and faith from the depths of our soul to sound the shofar and crack open the gates of heaven.
 
To that end, we are planning to start a prayer group in our synagogue that will meet on a regular basis to recite psalms together. Reciting the Psalms is one of the oldest Jewish practices, to come together as a community to pray for the world and for individuals in need, to focus our collective spiritual powers. Also, this coming year we will be initiating a series of learning services, perhaps a whole month of them, so that more of us can access the structure, power and meaning of the traditional service.
 
Teshuva, tefillah, utzedakkah maavirinon et roah ha gzeira.
 
Repentance or return, charity, and prayer lessen the evil of the decree.
 
It has been a difficult year in the world. There is suffering and evil everywhere we look. In this country. In this city. But Rosh Hashannah gives us the means to combat that evil in the coming year, to work to eradicate it. To not let it rule our lives…
 
We pray for a year of growth and of wiping away evil, in ourselves, in our societies, in the whole world. A new year filled with the strength of Charity, Return, and sincere Prayer.
 
Together, one step at a time, working with God as our partner, we can transform our world.
 
Shana tova u’metukah

“Religion is about walking” (Bechukotai 5776)

01/19/2017 04:09:18 PM

Jan19

When I was young, the most powerful religious memories for me were of our Friday night ritual before dinner. Of the singing we did. Of the special feeling, the holiness of Shabbat, that we created. We had our own way of doing it in our house. And I was convinced it was the very best and only way of doing it. I still am.

 
For many people, this is what religion is about. A collection of memory, song, feeling, nostalgia, of the way it was. It becomes planted in our minds. Even if we veer from that ideal or encounter others, it remains there, as the very definition of tradition.
 
And there is a part of us that will do anything to preserve it, to keep it the way it was. A part of us that wants to hand it over to our children. As a father for one month, I already am dreaming of my grandchildren carrying on the rituals I had growing up around the Shabbos table.
 
Tradition, ritual …
 
But this is not the only side of religion.
 
Our parashah this morning, Bechukotai opens with the verse, im bechukotai telekhu, if you walk in my commandments.
 
According to the Chassidic master Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, this verse conveys the essence of Judaism, of the religious life. Im bechukotai – if you live by My commandments, by My mitzvoth, by good deeds, by choosing to live rightly, telekhu! – you will walk! You will move forward!
 
And walking forward, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak says, is the entire purpose of religious life. From madreiga to madreiga, from one level and way of living to another. It defines what it means to be human beings. In the mystical tradition, we are known as ha’holchim, the walkers. As opposed to the angels, who are called ha’omdim, the ones who stand. For them nothing ever changes.
 
Judaism, with all of its rituals and commandments, and practices is there to help us walk, to help us move forward. Move forward in our growth as human beings. To become broader and deeper people – to become more thoughtful, more compassionate. More subtle. More loving.
 
This is why we have all of these laws and customs.
 
It is why in our parashah, we are presented – as we are throughout the Torah – with that choice. Good and evil. Blessing and punishment. Walking or falling back. Forging ahead or becoming stagnant.
 
I was once talking to my wife Rachel about this very subject and I remarked that Judaism, and religion in general, is about growth and moving forward. She said, no, that’s not religion, that’s spirituality!
 
I thought about it, and she’s right! –this is how people think about religion.
 
That it’s about preserving, never changing. Fighting the new.
 
People forget that at its core religion is about walking. About striking a new path that gives people and nations the means to evolve and move forward in their journeys.
 
This is what we will celebrate in two weeks at Shavuot, at Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah.
 
When an ancient tribe of slaves, a primitive people, were handed a mission to live differently than the people who surrounded them. A demanding mission that was – in truth – almost beyond their grasp. Ethics, morals, religious and spiritual ideals, all far beyond what they were used to. And much of the rest of the Torah and the rest of the Tannakh, the Bible, is about the Jewish people’s struggle to live by those ideals and not fall into old modes of being that were more familiar and comfortable.
 
To live a religious life that was centered on worship, on the sacrifice of animals, not human beings. A just society where we take care of others. A dedicated life with a very strong distinction between what is holy and what is not.
 
These ways of moving forward became embedded into our way of being, so that over time – animal sacrifice became prayer; a day of forced enclosure became the beautiful experience of Shabbat. Laws for maintaining a just society were interpreted and re-interpreted to fit the evolving social norms.
 
As our parashah says – Im bechukotai telekhu, if you walk in my commandments. If you follow my commandments then you will move forward. You will receive bounty, prosperity, all good things.
 
If you live by good actions, by reaching beyond yourselves to help others, if you deepen your self-understanding, if you strive to live by high ideals… then telekhu – then you will walk. You will walk forward, you will advance.
 
Walking and moving, is the very nature of life. Always searching and finding ways to become better and more fulfilled human beings.
 
These are the words that begin the last parashah in Leviticus because evolution and growth is so important to the Torah and to God.
 
Religion is beautiful. The ancient rituals resonate with a power that evokes eternity. They help us find our center in an ever changing world. But we must never forget the purpose of these rituals. Why it is that we are holding on to them and why we want to pass them on to our children. Because they help us grow and evolve.
 
(to Bat Mitzvah) Sivan – in your dvar torah, you talked about how God is a demanding and pressing parent. You clearly understood what the Torah is trying telling us about religion. How deeply it and God cares for us and wants us to move forward in our lives. As individuals and as a people…
 
The Torah is there to help us move forward – to walk in the direction of goodness, compassion, and peace – one step at a time.
 
Shabbat shalom!
Sun, 23 April 2017 27 Nisan 5777