Thursday, December 26, 2013

Parshat Va-Era, Being God to Pharaoh

There is a great story about how a person's good deeds are the only true friends who will, who can, accompany him or her into the afterlife to intercede before the Heavenly Court in its judgement of one's soul.

We are taught in this week's parshah that Moses will be "like God to Pharaoh" in their dealings with each other.  God will make Moses His messenger, and Moses, who was worried if he was up to the job, will be successful for this reason.

Yet some translate it, understand it, not that Moses will be like God, but that Moses will be a "master" over Pharaoh.  It's not that God will do it for Moses - but God is saying that you, Moses, you do have the ability to accomplish with your own hands, with your own deeds, the deliverance the Jewish People so desperately need.

So often in life we can feel as if our own actions are not enough, that we can't possibly accomplish what needs to be done.  Yet these two lessons - about one's good deeds being one's true friends for all time, and about Moses having the strength himself to carry out God's mission for him - these stories teach us that we can, with persistence, and determination, accomplish a great deal, if we try.

I want to acknowledge how one small action taken by members of our congregation is making an impact for the better.  The other day, many of you signed a letter that has now been sent to heads of universities around the country who have either taken their institutions out of the American Studies Association, or have otherwise protested against the ASA's resolution to boycott Israel.

Already I have received back a number of kind letters from university presidents we wrote to thanking us for our support of them.  I want to let you know, you are making a difference!

And so don't stop.  Find out if your alma mater is a part of the ASA and whether or not it has taken appropriate steps to distances itself form the ASA's despicable policy.   Contact your schools to let them know they should take such steps if they haven't yet and thank them if they have already.

Our small deeds can and do make a difference.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson

Friday, December 20, 2013

Lingering at the Inn: Parshat Shemot

The title no doubt sounds like I'm about to tell you something relating to a certain little holiday coming up next week, but it's not that (though it is interesting that there are some clear parallels between the stories).

This is a story about Moses, and a peculiar incident that befalls him on his return to Egypt from Midian.  He is instructed to go back, he sets out, and then the next thing we know, God seems to be trying to kill him until Zipporah his wife saves the day by circumcising Eliezer, their son.

In order to explain this we focus in on the reference in the Torah that this incident in which God seems to want to kill Moses happens while Moses is staying at an inn.

This, at least for some of the commentators, is the answer to what went wrong here.  Moses has lost track of his mission.  Not only has he, for some unknown reason, put off circumcising his son, he has also slowed down to a halt in his journey back to Egypt.

Now of course Moses had to sleep, had to eat, couldn't fly to Egypt.  But the implication is that he got more than a little bit distracted and this is what brings on the punishment.

More than that, it would suggest he got caught up in things that weren't really important at all - saving the Jews and rearing his children according to the tradition.

That may not be the only explanation, but it is a good reminder to us about something.  Too often we get caught up "lingering at the inns" of life's unimportant and insignificant things and forget to keep on with the progress towards what's important.  For whatever the reason, fear, doubt, simple human nature - we need to shake ourselves to action to be like Zipporah in this instance, and, as the text suggests, wedding ourselves to life and action.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pledging the Shema - Parshat Vayechi

Much has been made of late of the aging and declining of the Conservative Movement and what to do about it.  How do we not just pass on to a new generation our love of our understanding of  Judaism, but how can we make it alive to them, make it spread and grow?

The final words of the elderly Jacob speaking to sons in the parshah this week give us some advice and guidance.  Just before he is about to die, Jacob summons his children to gather around his bed. He tells his sons, "Come together, that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come." Then, rather than beginning his list of predictions, he inserts the comment, "Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; ve-shim'u el Yisrael avichem (Hearken to Israel, your father)."

The Midrash notes the wording of this remark, its seemingly extraneous placement, and suggest that Jacob says these words, to which his sons respond by reciting the Shema prayer, "Hear O Israel the Lord is our God, the Lord is One" and to which Jacob says in gratified response, the line we say when we recite the Shema today, Baruch shem... "Blessed is the Name of the Glorious Kingdom forever and ever."

Thus we learn something for when we say the Shema, something to guide us in thinking of how we pass on and shape our legacy:  

For “the sons” the younger generation, we need to be able to say this proclamation of faith sincerely, and think of the legacy of our elders; do we say the Shema as the twelve sons did in a way that honors what our elders hold dear?

And for the older generation – is what we are doing going to make the younger generation hearken to us as Jacob was able to do?  Are we setting the example for them so they can respond truthfully, “We hear you!”

Pledge with me – when you say the Shema, to think of these things and how you can in the future, help forge and help strengthen the bonds we feel between each other, wherever you stand in the great chain of the Jewish people.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Joseph, Jacob and Life's Five Great Regrets

Parshat Vayiggash is impressive for its family drama - Joseph acts with compassion and forgiveness after seeing his brothers have truly changed and repented their misdeeds.  Jacob and Joseph are reunited when it seemed they would likely die without ever seeing each other again and share in the joy of grandfather living to see his grandchildren.

Studies tell us that there are five chief-most regrets people confronted with their own mortality report having.  And our parshah shows us a version of nearly all of them.  Considering our Torah portion in the context these lessons may help us avoid having these regrets and live our lives in more meaningful, fulfilling ways:

1.  I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself and not what others expected of me - we see Joseph learning this lesson over the course of his life, ultimately for the better of his whole family, and the world.

2.  I wish I didn't work so hard - while I'm not sure if this one appears directly, any story focusing on how a dreamer rises from slavery to royalty at least hints at the idea.

3.  I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings - Joseph and his reaction to his brothers is the example of this.  He not only isn't afraid to express his feelings, but his feelings demonstrate a great capacity for learning who he is and of which emotions he is worthy.

4.  I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends - again, not sure this exactly appears but we do see many close bonds - Joseph and Jacob and Benjamin for example in our story.

5.  I wish that I had let myself be happier - And Jacob may be the example of this.  His blessing his grandchildren - his simply getting to see his grandchildren when he didn't even imagine seeing their father - is just such an example of literally embracing the happiness God grants you.

We have no guarantees in life but we can learn from stories like those in our portion this week how to avoid falling victim to these five regrets and instead living better lives without them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson

Friday, November 29, 2013

And in Our Days, Too

Everyone loves a lesson about Hebrew grammar.  I know I do.  But grammar lessons where the grammar can be a little wrong, or at least clunky, but the message be of powerful importance to how we believe - that sounds like one I might give a second to.
So in brief, here it is.  There is a dispute as to the correct wording of the second blessing for the Hanukkah lights (which we started lighting Wednesday night) – that is the she-asa nisim blessng – and this is it.  There are two alternatives for its wording: “שעשה נסים לאבותנו בימים ההם בזמן הזה” or “ובזמן הזה”. The first refers to God’s miracles performed “for our ancestors in those days at this time”, whereas the second speaks of miracles “for our ancestors in those days and at this time”.
Now some say it should be "and at this time" because God has and continues to make miracles for us and we should be considerate and thankful for all of them as a part of Hanukkah celebrations.  The ones God performed for the Maccabees are important, but so too are the ones he does for us today.
Others say that using this wording makes no grammatical sense as it would suggest that the miracles God is doing today were for our ancestors back then.  
But I think that may be true (though I don't say the blessing in that way, but that's another story - the way you learn the prayers is the way you learn the prayers).  I think it is true that we should be thankful to God for miracles God did for our ancestors as well as for us.  
AND we should also believe that miracles performed today are for the benefit of our ancestors.  If we believe in a measure of eternal life for everyone, then in some mystical way miracles for us are of benefit to them.  But even more and greater than that - their story becomes all the more powerful, all the more meaningful, all the more richer and fuller, if our story which began with and depends on what they did becomes one of great religious, moral, spiritual growth and success.  Think about it - Steve Jobs' tinkering in the garage bore impressive fruit with the Apple II - but how much more impressive did his earlier accomplishments become when we saw that they led to the iPhone?  The Maccabees story becomes all the greater the greater a legacy we build upon it.
So maybe it's not so terrible to say the prayer acknowledging those days and ours as well.
Happy Hanukkah and Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Benson

Friday, November 22, 2013

Speak to Us with Utmost Candor: Thoughts on the JFK Anniversary

As I write this now, it is fifty years and an hour from the time that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  It has the feel of great significance to me; it should.  It is a defining moment for contemporary American life.  Much of what and how we conduct ourselves in the world in which I have grown up and in which we all live has arguably been defined by those moments in Dallas.

One such change, and we were reading more about it in the recent Pew report the other day, was with regards to our society's increasing focus on the individual and what is "in it for me."  Rabbis and other Jewish leader speak, rightly or wrongly, of a heyday for Conservative Judaism, in about the time of the Kennedy Administration, when synagogues were booming and volunteerism on behalf of the community seemed to be at a peak.

Now I'm not sure that was ever truly the case.  I think there are many good things going on today in synagogues, and I suspect some of that volunteerism in the 60s was as much about proving who made the best casserole or could bowl the most strikes as it was about truly improving peoples' lives.

It is telling to me, though, that in early 1964, responding to words spoken by the Mayor of Dallas, Earle Cabell, that one of Dallas' leading clergyman, Rabbi Levi Olan spoke the message I would like to relate in part to you (on his regular radio program - for those of you who don't know that's like a podcast).

Rabbi Olan was responding to what the mayor had said, which was, "I call upon the churches and synagogues for such devotion to our faith that they will speak to us with utmost candor, both of ideals of truth and of the shortcomings of our community, so that we may be guided into the paths of right... I call upon the people to bear every means of strengthening our moral fiber and to make our a community of tolerance and understanding."

That in itself is impressive.  The notion that the religious institutions of the city should be thought of potentially playing such an important role in its life.  But beyond that, Rabbi Olan's response is one of true moral integrity and prophetic challenge.  He demands that among other things the city not fail in its efforts to move forward with civil rights, protections for the hungry and poor, and otherwise earn the good reputation it felt it had lost.

He also worries about a particular sort of problem that he fears may rise up, "We have accepted the personal one which begins by asking, 'what is in it for me?' So we do not help the dependent child adequately, we do not feed the hungry child, and we do not care about slums, drop outs, second class culture. These do not fit our self-interest code of values."

Olan concludes after this that the churches and synagogues cannot simply reflect back the values of the people but talking to them about how they might seek to rise above - and for Olan, the answer is to make concern for others an essential part of who we try to be.  That sounds like such a universal value, but it is truly a Jewish one at its core.

And I believe, it is as resonant today as it was half a century ago.  In many ways it is the antidote necessary to inspire and motivate our current generation of Jews.  They clearly aren't interested in the synagogue as bowling league and casserole bake-off center, but I don't think Rabbi Olan was either.  I think the best ideals of the 60s are still as applicable, if not more so, now - the concern with our fellow human beings and lifting them up.  Recognizing our responsibility to them, as fellow citizens, as Jews, as human beings.

It seems to me we had a president who once delivered just such a message, too.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson

Friday, November 15, 2013

From the Jewish Review of Books - Gordis on Conservative Judaism

Been away for a bit.  Hoping to have time to have more to say to you in the weeks ahead.  In the meantime, this from one of my teachers, Rabbi Daniel Gordis.  Thought-provoking article about Conservative Judaism to say the least:

Requiem for a Movement

Friday, October 25, 2013

Lessons in Grabbing: Haftarah for Parshat Chaye Sarah

Reading any of the stories surrounding the transition of power between Kings David and Solomon, I always feel as if I am starting to hear the music to the Godfather playing in the background.  The intrigue, manipulation, and murder recorded in the Book of Kings could easily be (and has been now that I think of it) material for a movie.

We have just such a scene in the haftarah chosen for this week.  Just as we read about the deaths of Sarah and Abraham in our Torah portion, we encounter a scene about David's plans for a future without him.  And we learn from it a very powerful lesson that applies today.  Applies to so many areas from how government affairs should be conducted, how we treat the environment, and most importantly, how we interact with each other.

In brief, David's son, Adonijah attempts a coup against his father, not the first time that has happened, and the forces of the kingdom rally to the opposing sides.  Adonijah, has miscalculated just how feeble his father has become (or at least how feeble his advisers have not yet become) and his plans are foiled.

Adonijah is a great example of the rabbinic principle of tafasta m'ruba lo tafasta - "one who grabs too much ends up grabbing nothing at all."

As much as Adonijah's is a lesson about only taking what you really need (and really deserve), it is even more a lesson about miscalculating the situation.  He woefully misplays his hand by acting too soon, it would seem, and failing to neutralize those who are still quite able to act against him.

One hopes we will not find ourselves needing to fight our families over who shall be king.  But we should take the lessons of the haftarah to heart.  That careful planning and careful analysis, that understanding the larger picture and how we fit into it - and not just what will bring us immediate gains, that all these as well as being modest and thoughtful in what we take, what we use, that these are all the lessons we are encouraged to learn this week.

I hope it will be a lesson you really to take to heart and keep.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson

Friday, October 18, 2013

Thank You & Hospitality - Parshat Vayera

If you open to the beginning of a chumash with Rashi, you’ll see the first comment that Rashi offers is one he learned from his father. In this way he pays the highest honor he can to his greatest teacher.  In coming to this parshah, I'd like to share with you a drashah (one of few to have been preserved given the largely extemporaneous way he tended to deliver sermons) about the importance of hospitality, of welcoming, taken from the teachings of my mentor, Rabbi Meier Schimmel, zichrono livrachah.  This comes from the early 1960's but applies just as much to synagogue life today as it did then.
Today, as we think about "welcoming" and synagogues - we must consider the experience of him or her who comes for the first time.  Or who longs for a Jewish connection but never comes into the synagogue at all.  - Rabbi Schimmel, teaching about Abraham, teaches us a lesson about these people:
Vayera elav Adoshem b’Elonei Mamre. “And the Lord appeared unto him, Abraham, in the Grove of Mamre.” As he was sitting at the entrance of his tent, in the heat of the day we see a picture of mercy – courtesy – brotherly love and hospitality. Our Father Abraham.
With Abraham we see the beginning of higher spiritual life in humanity. He planted an eshel in B’er Sheva. What is the meaning of eshel? Some interpreted eshel as an inn – others as a park. But the three letters in eshel stand for three meanings:
Alef for achilo – eating,
Shin for sh’teyoh –drinking,
Lamed for linon – lodging.
He built this eshel let us think of it as a sort of pavilion – open on all sides so that from whichever direction a traveler might come – the open door invited him to enter and rest.
Abraham recognized no distinction of class or creed, race or nationality. All were welcome – and were greeted, baruch habo – “blessed and welcome are you.” He put his guests at ease, and made them feel that in accepting his hospitality, they were honoring him.
The Torah lays stress upon consideration for the stranger – that sense of loneliness, of being unwanted, stirs Jewish compassion, to open the doors of our heart. So we must take the homeless to our homes and the stranger to our heart.
Returning to the opening verse of our sidro – what was the 99 year old Abraham doing at the door of his tent in the heat of the day?
He is looking for strangers –
Despite the heat and his physical weakness, Rashi tells us it was the third day after his circumcision. He lifted up his eyes and saw three persons approaching. He runs to meet them – and entreats them – do not pass by – come into my dwelling – wash your tired feet and rest in the shade of the trees until I can provide you with food and drink.
He rejoices when they accept his invitation. He hastens into the tent of his wife Sara – asking for the best food to be prepared. He serves the food himself urging them to take their fill. Blessing them as they leave. This was Abraham our Forefather.
Can you visualize this act of love? What a wonderful feeling and satisfaction Abraham must have had –
This is our heritage - in his footsteps we should walk.
In our daily prayers we say:
Elu d’varim sh’adam ochel perotehem b’olam hazeh, v’hakeren kayemet b’olam habah.
“These are the things – the fruits of which a man enjoys in this world – while the stock remains for him, for the world to come: honor father and mother, the practice of charity, timely attendance at the house of worship, and to bring in orchim - haknasat orchim.
The good deed, mitzvah, is to take care of an oreach. Oreach means stranger – and it is no surprise that the term also refers to a poor man – when one is lost and alone – even if he has money and possessions – he is poor. Therefore we must open our door and above all our heart to welcome him with baruch habo – “welcome is he who cometh.”
Yet this is difficult to do. It is difficult to be a stranger, and it is also frequently difficult to welcome the stranger, it forces us outside of ourselves, yet this is what Abraham sets for us as an example, for what God would have us do.
Let us remember – when an oreach, a stranger – whoever he may be – enters our synagogue – we must greet him with the warmth of our heart – to mean it fully, baruch habo, “welcome are you.” Sholom aleychem, “peace be unto thee.”
Let us also recognize that the oreach, need not be a literal stranger, he or she could be a long time member but someone who for whatever reason feels distanced from the community. In that case we must find the ways to say “welcome back,” and “share in this peace which is yours, too.” Similarly the oreach could be someone who is quite active, but whose good deeds and good efforts have gone unrecognized, unacknowledged, unrewarded. In that case, too, we must learn the proper ways to express the sense of honor we feel at having such a person in our midst and as a part of our community.
Therefore, members of this holy congregation, consider, how well will we be able to rest and find peace – when we know we gave rest and peace to others – as it is written,

V’ahavtem et hager, “Love ye then the stranger,” ki gerim hayitem beretz Mitzraim, “for you have been strangers in the Land of Egypt.” And as you would like to be treated – so treat thy fellow man. Let me wish you all a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Welcome the Nones! - Thoughts on the Pew Report

It has been the focus of much discussion in the American Jewish world, the new report by the Pew Research Center.  I posted about last week for those of you interested enough to click over to that.  

Earlier this week Conservative Rabbis had the chance to speak to Prof. Jonathan Sarna about the studies' findings.  One thing more than everything else resonated with me, regarding the news about all the "Nones" we have out there - people who take a dim view of "organized religion."

A fact that struck me, and apparently many others, is that within the "Nones" group are Jews affiliated with a synagogue.  How can that be?

Prof. Sarna explained that this is an example of, "all religion is local."  People who have a dim view organized religion as a whole may still very much appreciate the local synagogue, rabbi, school, etc.  That near-by institution is what will matter even if the national offices of the movement do not.  These people may not care about organized religion, but they still care about - well if not "religion" (although some do and they believe in God also) then at least "being Jewish".

That to me was very encouraging news about the study.  That it is possible to be successful and reach these people is something that can happen.  But it is not going to happen just because they are automatically looking for a Conservative synagogue.  But if the local Conservative (or whatever) synagogue can show how it plays a role in the lives of people - for them, their kids; show them how to enrich what they do, be better people - then the synagogue can be a vital institution.

And isn't that what we really want our synagogues to be anyway?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Aaron Benson

Friday, October 4, 2013

It's Time to Get Over Ourselves: The Lessons of the Pew Survey | Donniel Hartman | Ops & Blogs | The Times of Israel

The Pew Research Center recently released a new report on the state of American Jews:

Rabbi Donniel Hartman has a very insightful analysis of it I thought I would share with you here:
It's time to get over ourselves: The lessons of the Pew survey | Donniel Hartman | Ops & Blogs | The Times of Israel
Those of you in the Suffolk County area, please join me for a session on Prayer this Sunday at 3pm at the North Shore Jewish Center.  It is a part of a series brought to you by the Three Village Clergy Council.

And join me every Tuesday from 10-11am for a Bible study class in the Bet Midrash at NSCJ.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Three Village Interfaith Clergy Association Educational Series on Prayer

Three Village Interfaith Clergy Association Educational Series on Prayer

Local clergy offer a fascinating and engaging series for the public to explore differences and similarities in our religious traditions. This year's fall educational series explores how people of different faiths approach prayer. Please join us:

October 6, 3-5 pm:
North Shore Jewish Center--Jewish (385 Old Town Rd.,  Port Jefferson Station)
Yours truly will present along with Rabbi Stephen Karol of Temple Isaiah, Stony Brook

October 27, 3-5 pm:
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook--Christian and UU
(380 Nicolls Rd., Setauket)

November 17, 3-5 pm:
LI Islamic Center, Selden Masjid--Muslim (10 Park Hill Drive, Selden, NY)

There is no fee and light refreshments, with dietary laws observed, will be served.

Questions, contact Rabbi Benson:

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sukkot - Bending and Even Breaking

Once in rabbinical school a group of us decided to celebrate Sukkot by going out to Joshua Tree National Park and building a sukkah there and spending the holiday.  Everything went well until the Sukkah blew down during the first night of the holiday.  Needless to say, that put a kink in our holiday plans.

But it teaches an excellent lesson about the holiday.  Sukkot is a time of rejoicing but it is also a reminder that our lives are, if not so much meant to be, than they simply are fragile.  Our plans will often go wrong or fail, bad things are bound to happen, things are just going to be unfair.  And yet Sukkot teaches us in the face of all this to be happy.

We aren't meant to be happy in a foolish, don't try sort of way - you do build the Sukkah after all, this isn't the holiday of sleeping bags.  But we need to be able to laugh, to still be happy, to still love and give thanks, even when the sukkah blows over.

Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Benson

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Timely Yom Kippur Lesson from 1890

First things first, credit where it is due, I subscribe to a daily email from My Jewish Learning called, "Jewniverse" and the one today resonated such that I wanted to share it:

It is about Ray Litman Frank (1861-1948), a prominent Jewish educator, speaker, writer, and early advocate for the increased participation of women in Jewish life.  I have a personal connection to her in that she was also involved in founding the first ever Hillel, which was at my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  She was also involved in the local synagogue, Sinai Temple, where the library is named after her and where I taught for a few years, too.

In 1890, she was in Spokane, Washington for Yom Kippur.  While there were a lot of Jews in the town, including some of means, they hadn't quite gotten it together to start a synagogue or school or any other permanent features of Jewish life there.  There were too many disagreements between those of (in keeping with the usage of the times) the "orthodox persuasion" and those of the "reform".

Frank helped see to it that a service was held there for Yom Kippur at which she spoke about the importance of the factions in the community coming together for the common good.

While there are some amusing 19th century turns-of-phrase, such as Frank's use of the term "church" to describe the Jewish community as would have been commonplace then, her message rings as true for our kehillot today, more than 100 years later.

Enjoy the words of the "Maiden in the Temple", Ray Litman Frank:

G'mar Chatimah Tovah,

Rabbi Benson

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Best Wishes for a Happy and Sweet New Year!

For the start of the holiday, I encourage you to look at an article just published which I wrote for the Times Beacon Record:
Jews Ring in the New Year with Rosh Hashanah

Shanah Tovah u'Metukah, A Sweet and Good New Year,

Rabbi Aaron Benson and Family

Friday, August 30, 2013

Why Say Selichot?

This Saturday night, the start of the week of Rosh Hashanah, Selichot services are held.  These are special prayers said during the High Holy Day period.  The importance of saying these prayers is described in the Midrash (Tanna D'bei Eliyahu): 

"King David knew that in the future the Temple would be destroyed and the offerings would cease because of the sins of the Jewish People.  King David was troubled because he didn't know how the Jews would gain atonement for their sins.  

"The Holy One said to King David, 'At the time that troubles come to the Jewish People because of their sins, let them say before Me the order of the Selichot Prayer (the 13 Attributes of God's Mercy) and I will answer them."

The Selichot prayers are the warm-up for the entire Teshuvah (repentance) process.  Since we have fallen far short of our potential in the past year, we need to ask God to overlook our prior shortcomings as we rededicate ourselves to putting forth a maximum effort to do better in the coming year.

The Sages designed Selichot to bring us into the right frame of mind for asking forgiveness and doing Teshuvah.  

Selichot Services are at 11:30pm at the North Shore Jewish Center this year.  

Best wishes for a Happy and Health New Year,

Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Benson

Friday, August 23, 2013

Parshat Ki Tavo: Complaining You Want to Hear

Having kids, there is a fair bit of complaining that you have to endure.  "I want to stay up later," "I want to have more cookies," I suspect you get the picture.  But every now and then, you get a complaint that let's you know that maybe just maybe you aren't the worst parent out there.

This happened with my five year-old with regards to a homeless man we saw.  "I don't want there to have to be any grandpas that have to live on the street."  Even after giving the man some money and talking to him, my son was still bothered about it.  But that's the type of complaining about the world that you are proud to hear your kid do.

Moses has such a moment with the Jewish People this week.  The first of many "good complaints" the Jews have been known to make over the years.  After having endured years of complaining about having to eat mannah and the journey being too hard and countless other things, we are told of a different complaint.

In Deuteronomy 29:3 we are told that the Jews come to Moses to complain that he has presented the Levite tribe with the Torah (Rashi refers to Deuteronomy 31:9 being where that happens - we'll leave aside for now the fact that passage is after this one) when they too, all the Jews, had accepted it at Mt. Sinai.

As a response we get the words of this verse which in English says, "God did not give you a heart with which to know or eyes with which to see or ears with which to hear until today."  It wasn't until this point, Moses is saying, that I knew you really cared about the Torah in your hearts and for yourselves, but with this complaint, I see that you finally "get" it.  The Jews had shown Moses that maybe they'd be okay even after he was gone.  They had learned to complain about the right things.

We Jews have a long history about being there to complain about things when they are wrong and deserve to be fixed.  The Torah as a whole is such a complaint against a life lived without reverence for the world around us and the people in it.  

Let us be proud of our well-deserved reputation for complaining, just so long as we complain about the right stuff.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Parshat Ki Teitzei: Learning Humanity from Animals

Would you help someone who had wronged you? Someone who you didn't like? An "enemy" of yours? Why or why not? What is it that sets us up to become "enemies" with another person in our lives? What is it that makes us dislike another person so that we can't stand them, can't be around them? 

The portion this week, from Deuteronomy, includes one of the Torah's more famous lessons, "If you see your fellow's ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent." Deuteronomy 23:1-3 

Not unlike this is a passage in the book of Exodus, (23:4-5) where the only difference is that it is your "enemy's" animal, not that of you "fellow" that you must help.

The Talmud of course imagines the obvious problem - what do you do if you see both the animal of your fellow and the animal of your enemy both lost at the same time? Who do you help first? You may have guessed it, you help your enemy first. And why is that? We are taught, "in assisting your enemy you remember your common humanity and forget your animosity."

That is a great lesson about not only how to banish hatred and strife from a relationship, but also why such things enter into a relationship in the first - we forget our common humanity. We forget all the fears and worries and self-doubts and other faults human beings have that can make others so irritating, so disrespectful, so distasteful to us -- all those same issues we just naturally assume everyone else will accept in us when they meet us.

By doing something that reminds you of that, you jar yourself out of what is ultimately selfish thinking, "this person lives their life solely to annoy me" and replace it with a broader mindset, "maybe there is more to this person than I ever considered before."

We so often ascribe to our pets and other animals anthropomorphic traits. Here, the Torah finds in animals a way in which to draw out the best about who we can be as human beings.  Not a bad lesson for this time of reflection and repentance before the New Year either.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benson

Friday, August 9, 2013

Parshat Shofetim - My Horse for a Kingdom?

The other day I heard a program about the charismatic general Abdel Fatah el-Sisi who most believe is the one in charge in Egypt since that country's recent change in government. The program spoke about how popular a figure he is and the celebrity status he enjoys, at least for now. In our portion this week, Shoftim, we read the passage concerning the possibilities of a mortal king being set up to rule the Jewish People. Deuteronomy 17:14-20 detail the conditions for choosing a king and how he should rule. One gets the impression that the Torah wants to limit the power of the king; he can't have too many horses for example (either for military campaigns or else as a sign of his status). The Sefer ha-Chinuch, a book that lists all 613 mitzvot in the order in which they appear finds this to be Positive Commandment #173. However, there are others who argue that it is not a commandment at all, but rather an option God gives out of consideration for human nature - the Jews may one day wish to have a king like other people do and so they may provided these rules are followed. The idea behind this view is to teach that our leaders must always be of the sort who remember their responsibilities and do not let their position go to their heads. It is all to easy to be acclaimed by the masses, as is the case for the Egyptian general, but it can also be all to easy to make mistakes when that happens as well. Remembering one's duty to the people one leads, and to the mission and values that unite that people are important in the long run. Important lessons for kings of old, new Egyptian dictators, and all of us who seek to take on roles of responsibility. We must remember that leading is ultimately about serving - a lesson the Torah makes clear: the king remains a servant of God. So must we. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Miracles in Our Days: Parshat Ekev

Do miracles happen in our day?  do things written about in the Torah "come true" as if they were predictions made by Nostradamus?  For the most part I would say such a view largely misunderstands how we are meant to read what the Torah is telling us.  But when it comes to this week's portion, I am a little more inclined to answer with, "yes, yes they do."
This week's portion, Ekev, Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25, contains (7:12-8:18) the reading some recite on Yom Ha-Atzma'ut, Israeli Independence Day. Whether or not you agree we should assign a Torah reading to a modern holiday, reading the opening of this week's portion with the birth of Israel in mind is truly moving.  The language of finally arriving after enduring so much that we find at the start of chapter eight captures exactly the feeling, at least it does for me, that comes from contemplating the miracle it is that our people should once again be sovereign in our own land.  
And equally resonant for today are the parshah's warnings regarding properly respecting and honoring the miracle that is Israel.  The election of a new chief rabbi and all the issues for religious tolerance that it conjures, a new round of peace talks in an Israel with new political movements in the mix, regional turmoil, relations with the youth of the Diaspora, these are just the problems that first occurred to me that we Jews face when I comes to Israel today.  
We must all work hard, recognizing that while "man doth not live by bread only" (8:3) God doesn't bake either - we must constantly struggle for the greatest miracle of our days.  
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benson

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Va-Etchanan: The Ten Commandments or Now I Get It!

In the kiddush prayer on Friday nights we in part pray thanking God for giving us the Sabbath, b'ahavah uv'ratzon "with love and 'reason'/'goodwill'/etc." I often think of it as "with love and reason" as it reminds of the line from H.M.S. Pinafore when Josephine sings, "oh god of love and god of reason say" about her choice between either a safe choice of a mate or one made with the heart. In the kiddush, it reminds me of the two schools of thought for how we might understand Judaism itself - the "mystical" school, that of "love" and the "rational" school, that of "reason." While anyone is entitled to borrow from each point of view that which one will (and I often complain that I am a rationalist who would like to be a mystic) they do emphasize and address different, sometimes opposing things when it comes to what to think about God, why we should do good things, what our role is in the world, etc. Thankfully, comments this week by the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks have allowed me to better square the two schools of "love and reason" or "rational and mystic". And in bringing them together we actually learn something really great for how to put our Judaism into action. Lord Sacks talks about the opening line of the Ten Commandments, which we will read this week, "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egyptian bondage" and the debate between the likes of Moses Maimonides, perhaps the preeminent rationalist and Judah Halevi or Nachmanides, both of whom could easily fall into the mystical category. The two camps disagree as to what we are being taught in the first commandment. Maimonides sees it as the necessary first belief for everyone to have; there is a God who created everything. Nothing else makes sense without knowing that first for him. Halevi and Nachmanides however see the commandment almost more like a preamble or precondition - God's special relationship with the Jews sets up the rationale for everything else. Sacks suggests, drawing on an idea he expresses in many other places in his works, that Maimonides points to that part of God that is meant to be known by all people and can be discovered in religion and in science, nature, poetry, anywhere. The mystics, Sacks points out further, emphasize the unique relationship that God has with the Jews expressed as it is uniquely in the Torah and the rest of Judaism. No longer are the two interpretations and the two schools at odds - they are merely emphasizing two different parts of our relationship to what Judaism is about. Allow me to say just a little more than about this, about how we can all be both mystics and rationalists. That part of our religious lives that inspires us as art or poetry might - the prayers in synagogue, the holidays, keeping kosher, etc., these things appeal to our mystical side. They might not be easily explained "rationally" but that doesn't make them any less true or valuable. And some people are going to be very moved by such things and others may not feel them as keenly, and that is fine. But sadly lacking would be our Judaism if that was all it offered to us. We must have the "rational" side as well. That side that encourages us towards helping our neighbor and even helping the stranger. That side that encourages us to see that justice prevails and that kindness and compassion play a role in how we humans interact with each other. You don't necessarily need a Torah to tell you that those things are important but you can't have the Torah (or Judaism) without those things being important either! That's a lot that we get from just the first commandment of the Ten Commandments, but I guess that's why it's first after all. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Moving, Orphans, Wells in Tajikistan

The condo is full of boxes, the first floor is nearly empty and our cars are already on their way to New York.  We have no Internet, cable, or silverware anymore.  
And over the next week we will mostly be living out of suitcases and sleeping on couches and in guest rooms.  It is already feeling a little stressful and likely will continue to be.  
The other day I was taking care of some last minute things, feeling a little anxious about the upheaval going on when a report came on about the struggle to obtain potable water in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan.  Many people have to spend half the day to collect water at wells that haven't been maintained since the end of communism.   
Listening to that story made me feel not just less upset about our present "troubles" but grateful that we are faced with the opportunities ahead of us.  
But it also made me think of the haftarah this week.  It is not enough just to feel glad you aren't truly suffering, truly in need - you need to work to help those who are.  That is the message in Isaiah's words for Shabbat Hazon - "Learn to do right; seek justice.  Defend the oppressed.  Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow."
The blessings of a (even relatively) good life come with responsibilities to help others in need - this is what the Prophet wants us to realize.  
Take time this Shabbat and on Tisha b'Av next week to reflect on the things you have - and on how you can put them to work to help others.  
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benson

Thursday, July 4, 2013

My Journeys, Endings, Beginnings: Mattot-Massei

This Shabbat marks my first not actively serving a synagogue; my service at Beth Meier having come to an end and my service at North Shore Jewish Center not set to begin until August. The parshah, Mattot-Massei, which is the last of the Book of Numbers, finds a way to address me in the place in which I find myself. There are two ways the portion speaks to me - one through its content and one through its position at the end of a book of the Torah and how we treat it as such. Mattot-Massei includes a review of all the places that the Jews camped during the Exodus. This list is of a physical as well as a spiritual journey. As important as where they were are how the experiences of the Exodus forged the Jews into a nation united by Torah (or at least united by the struggle to be united by Torah). The second connection for me has to do with how we treat the end of a book of Torah. In synagogue we chant, "chazak, chazak, v'nitchazek" - "be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened." We do this to acknowledge all that we (hope we) have gained from our time spent reading and learning the book now closing. But more than that, these words suggest the refrain spoken numerous times in the Bible during the transition period between the death of Moses and the start of Joshua's term leading the Jews. That is also the time of the Jews' entry into Israel and the beginning of the process of conquest. A time of great challenge and opportunity and loss and possibility. The first point encourages me to reflect on the places I have been and what I have learned from each of them. What I have learned about myself, the communities I have served, the type of rabbi and father and husband and Jew I hope to be. My own journey of Illinois, California, New Jersey, California and New York has shown me the importance of being patient, of not giving up, of wanting to give and grow with a congregation, of wanting to see my sons and wife grow as people and to be encouraging of that growth. And the second point from this parshah inspires me to have courage and be strengthened by my commitments to God and Israel and Judaism. To let those things inspire me as I know they have in the past as I go through this time of great change. I encourage all of you to reflect on these themes from the parshah which I believe to be universal themes for all of us to consider at all times of our lives. Shabbat Shalom, I wish you strength on your journey! Rabbi Aaron Benson

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Looking for What We've Really Lost

One of the best prayers is the prayer we have for finding a lost object. "A prayer for finding a lost object?" you might wonder, "what kind of a religion did I sign up for?" Part of what makes it such a great prayer is because it is not what you'd think. Here is the text: Rabbi Binyamin said, "everyone is presumed to be blind until the Holy One, Blessed be He, opens their eyes, as it is written, 'God opened her eyes [and she saw a well of water], and she went and filled the skin." God of Meir [Baal Ha-Ness] answer me, God of Meir answer me, God of Meir answer me. In the merit of the charity I am donating for the elevation of the soul of Rabbi Meir Baal Ha-Ness, may his merit protect us, may I find what I have lost. So I'll admit, the last half does get a little "magic-incantationy" but when you take it with the first part, you learn something else about how we should relate to what we've lost - and also what we think we've lost. In the parshah, Balaam the prophet is riding his donkey to fulfill the command of King Balak to curse the Jews. As he is riding, he has his famous encounter with the angel which initially his donkey can see but Balaam cannot. Only when the donkey speaks to him is Balaam able to see what is in front of him, "then the Eternal One uncovered Balaam's eyes, and he saw the divine emissary..." (Num. 22:31). It is one thing to look, another to see, and yet another still to be able to perceive the difference between things we have really lost, things we never really had, and things that never really leave us. We therefore overlook an opportunity if the Prayer for a Lost Object only comes across as a magic spell. If however, we view it in light of the passage in the prayer about Hagar or in light of the passage in this week's Torah portion, we see it as a prayer to really open our eyes and become conscious of all the unimportant things we worry so much about and we can instead focus on the things that are truly precious to us. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Aaron Benson

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Red Heifer, Emperor Julian, and Religious Meaning

Any Roman Emperor who wanted to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem is pretty okay in my book. Emperor Julian was one of the last Caesars to govern the whole empire before it was permanently divided in two, and the last who was a pagan (though we could argue about whether say the later Western Emperor Anthemius was also a pagan, but then we would not only not be giving a d'var torah anymore, we'd also guarantee that we were talking to ourself). And more than being merely a pagan, Julian was a sort of pagan-crusader, fighting against what he saw as the threat to civilization that Christianity had become after gaining official status. He sought to curb its excesses of power and its persecution of non-Christians by promoting a brand of religious tolerance for all forms of worship - hence his desire to see the Temple rebuilt. Julian's philosophy is beautifully captured in a quote about him. It speaks to a notion that I believe is very much true for the religious believer today: "The myths that shock the vulgar are noble allegories to the wise and reverent. Purge religion from dross, if you like; but remember that you do so at your peril. One false step, one self-confident rejection of a thing which is merely too high for you to grasp, and you are darkening the Sun, casting God out of the world.” I bring this up (it really is a d'var torah!) because our portion this week, Chukkat, contains the passage describing the offering of the Red Heifer. That such an animal had properties to render the impure pure after properly sacrificing it defines the term chok, from which we get the title for the portion. A chok is a law, but one for which there is no obvious, practical, reason, at least not in human eyes. Much of religion could fall into such a category, at least for many today. And certainly when we ask why the specifics of Jewish life must be thus and so, it is hard to avoid an answer that is of the "I told you so" chok, variety. But what Julian's view, and again it is the view of many religious people today, teaches to us, is that religion is more the palette of the artist than the toolkit of the mechanic. Religion colors our lives with more than just moral meaning. It should offer beauty, wonder, and mystery to us, and encourage us to love, debate, question and even doubt the details of this life we've been given. The Red Heifer teaches a valuable lesson to us. Not that religious people shouldn't question, but that that shouldn't be quick to throw out the symbols and stories that have guided so many merely because they don't seem to have the same appeal to us today. We should strive to embrace all the odds and ends and oddities that make up our religious tradition. Such a tradition is perfectly suited to living in the odd and irrational world in which we find ourselves. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Aaron Benson

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Do What I Mean - Pitfalls of Trying to Help

"Do what I mean, not what I say." One of my teachers was found of saying this when he knew that he had given confusing instructions or otherwise not quite gotten out in words the thoughts in his head. It was a funny little way to point out these common mishaps in communication that can sometimes, if not often, be the source of conflict in our relationships with others. Shabbat this week is also the minor holiday of Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the month of Sivan. As such, we read a special haftarah for this occasion in place of the usual one related to the Torah portion. In the haftarah, taken from the book of Isaiah - we find an enlightening scene that points out to us just how necessary careful communication really is. Just having good intentions is often not enough if we aren't able to truly reach the other people with whom we interact. And not getting that communication right - if it is because of laziness or carelessness is a true disservice to those with whom we interact and a lessening of ourselves as well. In the haftarah, the story picks up with the Jews complaining (big news there). They seem to be upset because the news of their coming salvation from Babylonian exile has been delivered to them not with fiery trumpets and angels, but in the decree of Cyrus the Great. He allowed those people exiled from their homelands by the Babylonians to return to their homes as an act of clemency and celebration upon having conquered the Babylonians. As God speaks to Isaiah in the haftarah, it seems the Jews were unhappy, doubtful, unconvinced by this method of communication from God. God says about the Jews, "I called to them but they didn't answer, I spoke to them but they didn't hear." They just didn't get it that God sometimes (often, even) acts through the hands of human agents, and that it is up to us to perceive the divine even in such circumstances. But the big message, or at the least the one I want to focus on is not that. I want to point out that look how careful we have to be if even God can have trouble getting others to understand Him. He was acting in the Jews best interests, bringing to them salvation, and they couldn't get it. Now to my thinking, in the haftarah, the fault has to be with the Jews not hearing as opposed to with God not communicating well. But that does not get us off the hook. People are all too ready to overlook and miss that which is offered to them or said to them or done for their benefit if it is does not arrive in the way they expected. Rather than blame the person, we need to recognize our role in delivering that which we have to offer in a way that actually gets to the person. It should be part of our duty to act in a godly way. It should be part of our duty in taking others and their needs seriously. It should be part of our duty in taking what we have to offer others seriously as well. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Aaron Benson

Thursday, May 30, 2013

It's Not as Hard as You Think - Shelach Lecha

The portion this week, Shelach Lecha, is one of those that teaches us a positive lesson by means of a negative example. In general, I like to look at stories in the Torah, and I suppose I would like to think I try to look at events in life in this manner. That is, trying to find something positive to take away from a setback or failure; some corollary to the incorrect result that might teach something good anyway. Granted, that's not always easy nor is it the case that just because one might find something beneficial even in a bad experience that anyone else could or should, but I do feel it is worth the effort. So what is it that we learn about in the parshah this week? It is that even a relatively small group of people can have a huge impact on a community. And who makes up this small group of people? In the case of our portion, they are the 10 of the 12 spies who came back with a pessimistic assessment of the Jews' ability to conquer Israel. These ten, despite what Joshua and Caleb, Moses or Aaron try to say or do, are able to convince all the others that the mission that they have been given by God will be impossible to undertake. Now you might say that these ten did not have to do a lot of convincing given who they were talking to. The Jews to this point in the story have not been models of get up and go, can do thinking. So you might be thinking - those ten had it easy to convince the rest of the community not to try. But that is the very point! Here is a giant group of people, 600,000 and potentially even more according to the traditional sources (and even if we're talking hundreds only it is still impressive), and all it takes to push them into a firm decision about what to do - granted the wrong decision, but a firm one nonetheless - is to hear from ten guys that the land is full of giants and they felt like bugs. Sometimes we let ourselves be convinced that getting the right thing done will be too big a task. That convincing others to do the right thing, to change something for the better will be too hard. The spies teach us, again through a negative example, that this need not be the case. They teach us that it may not be hard at all for a tiny group to influence many others to go along with them. Let us try then to not give up and not be challenged by the odds but rather to remember the spies and realize that just as they were able to have a lasting negative impact though small in numbers, we may be able to have the same influence but for the good. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Aaron Benson

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Pitch: Lighting the Lights

Parshat Behalotecha this week could be a character on Mad Men. Okay, that is actually not true at all. For a lot of reasons. But now that we've admitted that, the portion does start off with a wonderful "catch phrase" that could be a motto or slogan or pitch or whatever it is they would call it, were you trying to "sell" Judaism. "Light the lamps so as to give light in front" is a phrase lifted from the start of this parshah. It distills for us just what it is we need our faith to be about. For ourselves, for others, for Israel, for God, we need our Jewish behavior, which really, at the end of the day, should include all our behavior, to be a source of light. Shining light to show the way, give comfort, inspire and make the world a better place, a more meaningful place, a more illuminated place. The ways in which this can happen are many. No doubts the mitzvot lay out for us many places where lights need to be lit. And they suggest to us many others ways in which we can, through all the small things in life, light things up. Now if the parshah were Don Draper, it would close the pitch with some appeal to memory or the past or going home again - maybe the parshah is a Mad Men character after all - those are all Jewish ideas come to think of it - and it would be true, we connect with our past and point the way into the future with the eternal light that God has given to us to keep shining in a world that so very much needs it. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Aaron Benson

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Blessing of Focus

The Torah Portion this week, Nasso, includes perhaps one of the best known biblical passages, what we often call the Priestly Blessing: 'The Lord spoke to Moses, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, ‘Thus you will bless the people of Israel. Say to them, The Lord bless you and protect you! The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you! The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!’ Thus you will link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”' The Rabbis do much to explain this blessing to us, in which God offers us six different things - blessing, protection, kindness, grace, favor, and peace - a pretty good deal for one blessing! One way I think about the blessings we receive in this blessings comes from the way in which the Jewish people are to receive the blessing when it is given. In those communities in which the kohanim, the priests, still offer this blessing (I find it among the most moving rituals of our liturgy), the congregation is meant to stand silently, looking away from the priests, often by covering their heads with their prayer shawls, and focus on the blessing, primarily through listening. I think we learn something from the way this ritual is performed. The ritual teaches us that one of God's greatest blessings to us it the ability to focus, even intently focus, on a thing. To be able to work hard, study hard, to really examine something or some relationship is a true gift that God gives us. It can even, much like the priestly blessing itself, produce many benefits from just one source. So this week, as we read the words of the Priestly Blessing in the Torah, take time to pause and really reflect on the opportunities that come to us from God's blessings. Shabbat Shalom, Aaron Benson

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Lineage of Torah

The Book of Numbers starts this week and starts with an instruction to "count the heads" (1:2) of all the households, But the Hebrew word se-u could also mean, "lift the heads". Why would the Torah use such ambiguous language? The great commentator Rashi informs us that prior to the census each Jew was required to produce a book of their lineage. The Midrash adds that producing this book was also required to be able to receive the Torah. Why is receiving the Torah dependent upon having this book of lineage? This sounds very class conscious and elitist - so what about the poor Jew like me who would have problems telling you about anyone older than my great-grandparents, about whom I could tell you very little to start? I think that “producing the head-raising lineage” here is something very different - and in fact it is what we celebrate with the holiday of Shavuot next week. More than rattling off the names and dates of your forebears and when they lived and died, it's about the Wisdom and Traditions that united them and unites them with us. Any Jew who puts himself or herself within that lineage of those who are willing to accept the call is counted. This Shavuot may we all be able to elevate and lift up our heads, our minds, our hearts, and our deeds, so as to take our place within that lineage. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Walk in My Ways - and Eat Your Broccoli

"How about one broccoli and two desserts?" Thus is the reasoning of my son regarding eating dinner. Suffice it to say, that while we probably give in on a lot, that was not a deal we were going to accept. It can certainly be frustrating wanting to do what's right for your children even when they don't see it that way. It occurs to me to share this story because of something a friend mentioned regarding God and our prayers to God: "I know, we really don't want a God who takes advice from his creations." It was a great sentiment. And while the relationship between God and us and parents and kids is not exactly the same - I thought the story put it in context. And all of it goes to helping us understand the parshah (actually two combined) this week. The start of Leviticus 26 tells us that if we "walk in God's ways" then He will, so it seems anyway, bend the will of creation to suit our needs. However we know, as I suspect even our ancestors did too, that sometimes that doesn't seem to be the case. Rather I think, and I think it is along the same lines as our examples, that the emphasis is not to be on the rains and produce of the land but on the walking in God's ways. Walking in God's ways goes along with parenting with concern for the child's true health and well-being, or accepting that God isn't a magician for me. It is our understanding that living upright and moral lives, and helping others, being God's agents in this world - that those are the things that make whatever the rains and crops and whatever anything else does, if not "okay" then at least "endurable" - because we have caring people willing to step up all around us. Just as I hope in some small way, that eating broccoli will produce a child who cares about his own health and well-being and that of others, so too I think that this is what God wants of us and what He is trying to tell us in our parshah this week. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Torah Portion Emor - Distinctions in Time and Space

I'm sure it's only because this week's portion is my Bar Mitzvah portion that such a profound teaching should appear within it. At least that's what I'm going with for now. Judaism has concern for drawing separations in order to highlight importance and concern. In order to better develop our skills at building relationships. Relationships between ourselves and the world around us, the people around us, and of course with God. Parshat Emor, the Torah reading this weekend, deals with two of the most fundamental systems by which Judaism draws such distinctions. The first system, which is dealt with in the various topics addressed in the beginning of the portion, deals with a person's inner ability to relate to world around him or her. That is the system of tumah and tahorah, of "purity" and "impurity". The second system, dealt with in the second half of the portion, deals with how we relate to time, time that is kodesh, "holy", and time that is chol, "secular" or "profane" or maybe just "not-holy." Both sets of terms can be challenging to understand and accept, particularly when we discuss them in English. "Impure", "profane" and even "not-holy" don't carry the best connotations in English. But by comparing them to each other, as this portion does, I think we learn better how to relate to them, and how they help us relate. We can perhaps better understand the second one relating to time. We all can imagine the special feeling that comes about on a holiday. The opportunities for a different way of being when we are with family, when we disconnect a little from the outside world. It's not that the outside world is bad (or that Shabbat or a holiday might be all good or that it's "easy" to make such days holy). In fact, I'm always inspired at Havdalah, the ceremony marking the end of a holiday and the beginning of "secular" time again, to try to take some of the experience of holy time with me into the rest of the week. Holy time and "Regular" time are necessary to each other and improve each other. The same, I think, is true with "purity" and "impurity". The terms in Hebrew don't imply anything about being good or bad, moral or immoral. One is expected to transition between both states many times. I think they are meant to refer to a state of preparedness or readiness for certain types of relationships or actions. And just as holidays and regular days help sharpen and improve each other (and elements of each may be found in the other) so too, do the states of "purity" and "impurity" function the same way in terms of our relationships with each. All the states of time and of being provide their own opportunities to connection to God and to connect to other people. And they also acknowledge the ups and downs that are natural to life as we live it. By having these two systems, and all of Judaism, to guide us, we are able to appreciate God's gifts, the value of our relationships, the potential in each of our days. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Death and Holiness Along Life's Path

More than most, our combined portions this week suggest to a question. Where are we going on this journey through life? What is the goal? And when it comes to religious belief, what is the religious meant to offer? Is religious meaning found in simply doing religious things, be they praying or giving charity? Is the reward in the deed itself? No doubt that is part of it, but I don't think it can be all. It certainly can't be all from the perspective of our first half our reading this week, Acharei Mot which picks up after the deaths of Aaron's two sons is a big lesson in the action being more than the sum of its parts. For if the action was its own reward, then why not let Nadav and Avihu do what they wanted if it was meaningful to them? There must be a greater something out there, whatever that might be, to which the two doomed priests' actions didn't measure up. And I think the second portion suggests that. Kedoshim - "Holiness" offers us the lesson that through right behavior and belief, thought and action, we can attain to the life of holiness, which we are famously told, is the state in which God exists. And what is that state? It seems, from the portion, to be a state of higher awareness for those around us - the world and its creatures. But more than this, it is also a wide-ranging system of how to properly acknowledge and interact with that world. When we want for a purpose, when we want to know "why", at least the path towards an answer is suggested by the lessons of this week's Torah reading. I invite your thoughts on where else the path leads and what we might find along it. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Battling Today's Blights

There are a number of Torah portions that are combined during the year depending on the needs of the calendar. This Shabbat we have such a combined portion, Tazria-Metzora. I think the rabbis may have particularly planned to put these two together because they spend a lot of time dealing with skin diseases and outbreaks of mold or some kind of infection in objects and houses. Better to get this all done in one week must have been part of the consideration for which two readings to combine. But even though these readings aren't perhaps the most exciting or about the most appealing subject, I think there is still a great lesson in them. The Torah and the rabbis saw in these outbreaks (the skin one is usually called leprosy but the Torah is probably describing something different here) a physical manifestation of a moral or religious short-coming. The house, the garment, the person, who became infected became so because something was wrong with what they had done or what they were used for, etc. The need to eradicate the outbreak was as much a health concern as it was a spiritual concern then. While I do not believe that people get rashes for gossiping or other moral failings, nevertheless I think there is something to making a connection between the physical and spiritual/moral/emotional worlds. We should be attuned to the ways in which our beliefs, our spiritual and moral health guide us in how we take care of and use our bodies and how we otherwise function in the world. And more than that, these portions should call on us to have concern for our brothers and sisters in need. The person who is homeless, the person in need of a job, the person who is actually ill - these are all people who are plagued with difficulties that no doubt will impact on their inner lives. Not that we should dare think they are being punished, we should still respond to their needs and do what we can to help them. I think we can reasonably see motivation to do that for others in these Torah portions. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Self-Pity, Responsibility, and David's Dancing

It's a troubling week of scriptural readings this week. The Torah portion, Shemini describes the deaths of two priests during their services to God. The Haftarah relates a similar story about a man named Uzzah who died while King David was transporting the Ark to Jerusalem. The story in the Torah seems somewhat easier to understand. Nadab and Abihu, Aaron's two sons, seem pretty clearly to have done something wrong. They offered "strange fire". Just what that means is not so clear, but it was bad and they got punished because it was bad. In the Haftarah, the case of Uzzah is less clear. The Ark seems to slip and Uzzah reaches out to steady it. We are taught that his sin was to presume the Ark needed human hands to steady it as if the hand of God was not enough. But still, it is hard not to imagine being in Uzzah's place. Something seems about to fall, about to break, what do you do? You gasp and lunge to save whatever is about to break. It seems wrong someone should get punished for a natural reaction. I'm not sure I have an answer for why Uzzah dies but rather a suggestion for how to look at this story. Uzzah is not the main character of this story, King David is. And I think we are to look at the story through David's eyes. Throughout the story we see David wrestling with the responsibilities of leadership. Is he worthy to move the Ark? Is he acting the way a king should act? Is he acting for his own glory or for God's? These questions are implied or asked outright throughout the Haftarah. My suggestion is to consider Uzzah's death as David would have perceived it. As being his fault. He is reported to be distressed and afraid. And there is even reason to believe he was upset or angry with himself (by understanding verse 8 to be saying, "and David was angry towards David", vayichar l'David as opposed to the verse before when God gets angry where it is, vayichar ahf Adonai b'Uzzah, "and God became angered at Uzzah".) The good leader, or anyone in a position of responsibility, should on some level feel partly to blame, partly at fault, when people under their direction fail or make mistakes. But the person truly dedicated to their responsibilities will not wallow in self-pity or overrate their victimization. The good leader will make adjustments, make amends, and move on to do what has to be done, what is required of them. We see King David going through this process. Following Uzzah's death he leaves the Ark where it is (well, close by, at someone's house). David makes the incident about David. His pride, his fears, how he will be perceived by others - these win out even over a man's death and fulfilling God's job for David to do. Finally though, we see David take up his responsibilities and bring the Ark to Jerusalem. This happens when David sees the Ark bless the random man with whom David left it. It's not about being a king David sees, its about finishing the task. And in finishing it, David is filled with real joy for meeting his obligations to God and as a leader. And even when Michal, the daughter of King Saul, criticizes David for how he is singing and dancing in celebration of the Ark's arrival, David is not bothered, not hurt by it. He is fully engaged in doing what is right and not making it about himself. Does any of this explain why Uzzah died? Perhaps it doesn't. Or perhaps the text very subtly does. Perhaps Uzzah just died. Perhaps he was crushed by the falling Ark in a true accident. And perhaps the text, through its careful use of language is putting us into David's head, giving us David's take on what happened. As we have laid out above, it would fit the story of David's overall development and growth to see it that way. And so perhaps in the end Uzzah's death does turn out to be important. Because through confronting that death, David realized that even as king, it wasn't all about him. And that even when faced with setbacks and tragedy, the good leader does not give up (and certainly does not see himself as a greater victim than someone who literally died!) but addresses the mistakes, learns from them, and carries on. And in so doing comes to know a joy and satisfaction that come from a job well done. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Singing and Passover

At our communal seder, someone asked how all the songs that we sing at the end, like Chad Gadya, ended up there. How are they attached to Passover? The real answer is, that they really aren't so attached. Most of them were popular or based on popular tunes from throughout Jewish history, and people enjoyed singing them. Eventually they became part of the seder and to the extant that there are holiday specific reasons why we sing them on Passover, those were sort of "reverse-engineered" you might say. But it got me thinking, that Passover is a holiday of songs. We go out of our way to add all the concluding songs even though we don't exactly "need" them to tell the story. Of course the seder includes the Hallel service which involves a lot of singing. We chant Shir ha-Shirim, the Song of Songs, on Saturday in synagogue. We recall the events tradition tells us took place then when on the seventh day (Monday) we recite Shirat ha-Yam, the Song at the Sea, when the Red Sea parted. I think the reason why Passover has so much singing associated with it is suggested by the injunction in the seder to begin in a lowly state and in celebration. That essential to the experience of redemption from slavery, from the narrow straits of bondage in Egypt, is rising from a lowly place to one of joy, of freedom. Throughout the holiday, therefore, we sing, for song more than anything else can lift a person the way it lifted the Jewish nation at the far banks of the Red Sea. When we are in a low place in our lives, let us find the song that is there even without melody and without words, the song of gratitude to God for creation, that can lift up and inspire us at any time. Chag Sameach, Rabbi Benson

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Just a Thought about Passover

Most of you will have noticed by now that Passover is in less than a week. I am still somewhat in denial about this and/or hoping that magically someone else will get all the Passover dishes out of the garage for me. Once the holiday starts though, things get much better. I hope that those of you joining us for the second night seder are as excited to celebrate together as I am. But those of you not joining us the second night, and well, I guess everyone on the first night, what will you do to make your seder a special event? I was reading an article from JTS in which Arnie Eisen, the school's chancellor, spoke about a talk he'd had with high school students. He was impressed by all the various things the students' families did to make the seder experience their own. Eisen observed that the rabbis had set us on the right track centuries ago because the traditional haggadah is really just the rabbis' best version of their "do it yourself" celebration and retelling of the Passover story. And it is telling the story that is the key thing. I am not going to get into a discussion about just how much of the traditional seder text you should say or you can skip or how to make the whole thing last less than an hour. What I do want to suggest is that each of us thinks about the larger ideas of Passover - slavery, freedom, service to others, service to God, renewal, identity, and many more - and think of new and unique ways to weave these ideas into our sedarim this year. The night somehow flies by and service never seems too long when we are able to breathe real enthusiasm for what we are doing into the seder. So this year, truly work to make it a night different from all other nights. Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach, Rabbi Benson

Thursday, March 14, 2013

D'var Torah by Pope Francis

Like many other people, I have been following the election of the new pope these last few weeks. Catholics make up about a seventh of the world's population and beyond that, I have an affinity for or at least an interest in religiously motivated people of all faiths. Religiously-minded people share a great deal in common. And so the choice of a new leader for one of the world's most influential faiths catches my attention. Also, I like all the pomp and circumstance. And I was not disappointed. From the moment Pope Francis came onto the balcony and gave such a simple little wave and greeted the world with, "buona sera" I was impressed. And that he could make a little joke and most of all that he asked those assembled to pray for him - that's my kind of religious leader. Even more so when I learned of his simple way of living and special concern for those in need. Something not everyone might have been watching was his first mass, which took place today. In it he shared, speaking extemporaneously (something else I like in a religious leader!), a message that I also found moving. And in large part because of the very Jewish nature of the message. It certainly applies, in general anyway, to anyone concerned with the role that synagogue and congregational life should play in the life of any person. Basing himself on the line in the Torah in which God charges Abraham, hitalech lifanai v'heyeh tamim, "walk before me faithfully and be blameless," he outlined a three-part guide to living. That life is a journey, that life involves building, and that life must be guided by religious belief. Journeying, building, faith. Allow me to paraphrase as I also interpret: We must recognize that life is a journey and thus about movement and thus about change. You can't stand still. We must recognize that life involves building, but are we building the right things or the wrong things? Are the things we think are important really important or products of our own self-absorption? How do we manage the journey and the building? Through faith. Faith allows us to walk along the journey of life and teaches us what to build when life is joyful or sad, difficult or easy. The Pope also went on to connect this to his new job. More than building up a Church of buildings or even of a hierarchy of priests, it was about building up people - the people are the truly important thing. For us in synagogue, it is the very same thing taught the same way. As we journey through life and experience change, as we try to build, endure collapse and build anew, as we struggle to be guided by faith, we should remember that our community, the congregation, the synagogue, is not so much the building and not even really the rabbi, it is the people that truly count. In them is where the real spirit of religious life can be found. It was an inspiring message - journeying, building, faith, and how they apply to people, not institutions. And grounded in the Torah and phrased in a very Jewish way. I hope it is a message that resonates for you as it did for me. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson