Thursday, December 27, 2012

The New Year and the Lesson of Egypt

Interestingly, the last Shabbat of 2012 is also the last Shabbat we read from the book of Genesis this year. This coincidence does give us a lens through which to view the year coming to a close, and consider our purpose in the year ahead. This past year has been one with seemingly more than its fair share of uncertainty and sorrow. Our economy, political discord, natural disasters and man-made evil, violence in Israel and pain and suffering around the world seemed to have dominated the news if not also the hearts and minds of so many in this last year. What, if anything can we make of it? What should we do? This last parshah in Genesis picks up the story of the Jewish People with Jacob, Joseph, and all of their family now living in Egypt. Regardless of what the historic Egypt may have been like, when we encounter Egypt in the Torah, and most certainly in later Jewish tradition, Egypt is a place of great sin and suffering; a place you don't want to end up in and if you've left, you don't want to return. Yet here, at the end of Genesis, our ancestors are living there. Why? As we well know, redemption of the Jews from slavery, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the Exodus and the Return to the Promised Land all were predicated on the Jews being in Egypt in the first place. And here is the lesson - it was only by descending into Egypt, to that difficult place, that the Jewish people could, with God's help, bring about all those miracles. I would suggest to you, that if we look around, and we find that the world is looking kind of "Egyptian," then perhaps we should also check if we are not the Jacobs and Josephs who need to go to work in such a difficult place to bring about a better future. May God bless the work of your hands in the coming secular year. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Reflections on the Connecticut School Attack

Within this past week all of us became mourners for those brutally murdered in the evil attack on an elementary school in Connecticut. As has been said many times already, every parent in our nation no doubt felt with particular agony the loss of so many young children, but I imagine that the humanity of each and every one of us was touched, too. There can be no simple answers, there is nothing special that I can say. Our tradition advises us to act as God's agents to provide comfort to those who mourn. You can find on our website,, links to a number of organizations that are working to support the survivors of the attack. Our tradition also suggests that we grant an additional measure of eternal life to those who die by choosing to live lives inspired by them. Thus, their words and deeds continue to echo in those which we say and do in their memory. Among numerous other ways, let us not hesitate to show our love and affection for those about whom we care, most particularly young people. And let us also express our gratitude to those whose calling in life it is to help to educate the next generation for the passion and devotion that motivates them. And finally let me say this. Judaism is not a political party, it is a religion. And while it should inform Jews as to how they operate in the political sphere, it is not, itself, so little as to be a political philosophy only, it is an entire way of life and a moral scheme for living. On those terms, it can advise us regarding one more matter touching upon this horrific event. Judaism teaches us, just as Jewish history teaches us, that evil exists in this world. And furthermore that evil frequently find a home in strikingly mundane places; while it produces monsters, those monster rarely look the part. Judaism then should remind us that in striving as a nation to see that such an attack never happen again, our goal should be to undo evil, to see it rendered as powerless to harm as possible. The means towards achieving that goal should not be confused with the goal itself. It will be a complex and long process to make permanent, effective strides towards combating evil, but then again, Judaism is not about making things easy, it is about making things right. And I think in this case, it is worth the effort. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Hanukkah - Shedding Light on What Might Be

While I wouldn't say that I love alternate history stories, you know, where you consider another outcome to some big, famous, event - "what if Washington hadn't crossed the Delaware?", "what if Lincoln hadn't been shot?", "what if Julian the Apostate hadn't been killed during his retreat from Ctesiphon?" - you know, stuff like that that everyone thinks about - I do think considering such "what if's" can be useful in reminding us that things didn't have to turn out like this, and that maybe other options, other paths, are still available. Hanukkah is a holiday very much like this to me. Even more, really, because Hanukkah represents an alternative in Jewish religious development that need not be an alternative, but can truly be part of how we understand Judaism today. On Hanukkah, as you may have noticed by now, we say some blessings before we light the candles, blessings that in part tell us we are doing so because God commanded us to fulfill his commandments. All well and good until you consider: God's commandments are found in the Torah. That's what we got on Mt. Sinai. Hanukkah was not part of that deal. So how is it God is commanding us to perform a commandment of Hanukkah? Either we understand it as a unique exception of some sort (one that goes for Purim, too) or else we must accept it as evidence that, at least at one point in time, the Rabbis felt that God's will was continuously revealed and that they, the Rabbis, human beings, could legitimately declare that something not originally in the Torah could still nevertheless be "commanded from God." While I completely understand why later generations of Jewish sages saw fit not to allow for such a rule to be applied often and everywhere, it does suggest that Judaism holds within itself a potential for accepting and endorsing changes and developments not as just as "fads" or "phases" but potentially as expressions of God's ongoing communication with us. This is not the venue to outline how and why and when and where such innovations might be enacted, but it is worth considering this somewhat hidden message, this nearly forgotten alternative in Judaism, which the Festival of Lights illuminates for us. Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukah, Rabbi Benson

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

How Wandering in a Field can Lead to (Lessons in) Remption

After a discussion about the weekly Torah reading, one in which we'd looked at what a number of different rabbis had said about what a passage means, I once had a congregant ask with exasperation, "but what is the right answer about what it means?" It's a good question, in that it points out something that I think confuses a lot of people about the Bible, and about how to understand it. The Torah and all the Bible, while they contain a lot history, and history might be something where you can sometimes find the answer (after all it's not December 5th, or 6th, or Something Around There a Date Which Will Live in Infamy!), that is not the only thing the Torah is going for. There is always meant to be a more important, more important and more varied set of lessons that the Torah tells us in any passage. This week's portion gives a great example. One of my favorite scenes in the Torah is that of Joseph, having been told to go to his brothers by Jacob, wandering around in a field, presumably having run out of energy to fulfill his father's request; a real depiction of just how much teenagers haven't changed in three thousand years. Then a man appears and tells Joseph where to go and that of course sets into motion the entirety of the rest of the Torah! But for such an important scene, the Torah is very quiet about who this stranger is. Now if this were history, it would be one of those mysteries like who fired first at Lexington or what happened to the Roanoke colony - but it's not that. By being vague, the Torah forces us to consider a bunch of possibilities. Our rabbis lay these out - it was an angel, it was just some guy, it was some guy, but he was acting on orders from God, and etc. By considering each of these we in fact consider all sorts of things about how God reveals himself in this world, about how we should interact with strangers, about how significant the little things we might do to help others (like giving directions) can actually be quite momentous in the lives of those we help (ultimately becoming viceroy of Egypt). We would be sorely lacking if we did not consider all at once these and many more lessons just this one incident teaches. And that is the beauty of Torah. It must be read for what it is, a book of religious guidance and inspiration for living a holy life. While some of its lessons draw on historical events or events that read as being true to real-life, to only look for "just the facts, ma'am" would miss the whole point. We must wrestle with the Torah's meaning so as to be worthy of our title of The People of the Book. Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukah, Rabbi Benson