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