Friday, December 21, 2018

Vayechi - As Parents and Children

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Parshat YaYechi, “Teach it to your Children” - 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 interposes the comment, "Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; ve-shim'u el Yisrael avichem (Hearken to Israel, your father)."  
The Rabbis notice that his words sound like the Shema, the creed of Judaism.  They imagine in the Midrash a dialogue between Jacob and his sons about these words.  He is saying, “recite the Shema, my children” and they respond by doing so, leading him to say, with comfort and relief upon hearing his sons’ devotion, the words we recite next after the Shema, baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed, “blessed is the Name of God’s glorious majesty forever.” 
When we say Shema, we should remember this story.  For “the sons,” us as the younger generation – we need to be able to say it sincerely and gratefully for the legacy of our elders.  Do we say the Shema as the twelve sons did in a way that honors what our elders held dear – candles, Shabbat, etc.? 
And for us as elders, what are you doing to make the younger generation hearken to the call of Judaism as Jacob did?  Are you setting the example for them so they can respond truthfully, “We hear!” 
Pledge with me – when you say the Shema, to think of these things and how you can in the future, bring them out, wherever you stand in the great chain of the Jewish people.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Mikketz - Dumb Enough to Dream

Mikketz: “Being Dumb Enough to Dream” - Dreams of what might come to be in the future and planning for them are the focus in Mikketz.  Our Torah portion continues the exploits of Joseph and sees him rise to authority in Egypt after interpreting correctly the dreams of Pharaoh. 

While in the parshah, it is up to the Jew to interpret the dreams, not to dream them, Joseph is also the one who makes the dreams reality.  We might imagine that the young man Joseph, new to the royal administration, and probably with some sense that his life is directly attached to how well he does at his new job, works extra hard, is extra creative in accomplishing his goals, and is able to bring some new ways of thinking to Egypt.

As we think about fulfilling our dreams, let us have Joseph’s example in mind.  And let me share with you some words from the poet John Andrew Holmes for you to consider as well,
“Never tell a young person that something cannot be done.  God may have been waiting for centuries for somebody ignorant enough of the impossible to do that very thing.” 

“Young,” in Holmes’ writing need not be “young in age” but “young in thinking” and that is something we can all be – it might just help us do the impossible.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Hanukkah Tells You How You're Unique

On Hanukkah, we are required to light candles, and the rabbis are very specific that it not be a torch, that they not be all over but lined up, that basically, each candle be uniquely its own contribution to the menorah, and to pirsumei nissah, to the command to “advertise the miracle” of Hanukkah.

And when you think about it, that is what Hanukkah itself is about.  It’s about the Jews saying, “no, we won’t assimilate and disappear – we have something unique to us to contribute to the tapestry of humanity.  We have a special job to play in God’s world, and we aren’t going to go away or become just like everyone else.”

The lesson of Hanukkah is a lesson to teach you to be uniquely you.  To embrace the things that make you who you are.  As it is taught, a human king will stamp coins and they all come out with the same image stamped on them.  God however, stamps the “coins” of each human being with God’s Spirit and in so doing, each coin comes out unique.  You are, by being yourself an important part of God’s plan for creation.

This is a lesson for the family and our community – that there are some people who are blessed with the skills of leadership, with a talent for building up the community, and if you’re one of those people then you are called upon to contribute your unique blessing to the betterment of the community.

Finally, Hanukkah reminds us of another lesson involving light, which is also the lesson of being a Jew in the greater world – that we have a job, to be an ohr l’goyim, a light to the world, of how to live in a holy, godly way.  Do your part in lighting the way of Judaism in our world.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Chaye Sarah - Election Day!

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Election Day is around the corner, so I’m here to tell you exactly how to vote.  Surely, without me, you wouldn’t know what to do, and now I’m going to tell you.
And the parshah couldn’t be a better one for dealing with this topic, starting as it does with Abraham in discussion for services from the existing authorities, the Hittites.  But what is it that Abraham asks for?  What is it he wants? 
T’nu li achuzat kever imachem, v’ekb’ra meti milfanai – “Grant me an estate for a burial site with you, that I may bury my dead from before me.”
What is Abraham interested in?  In ensuring that he will be able to fulfill the practices and beliefs of Judaism properly – that is what he needs.
And my friends, that is what we need to consider, that is my first instruction on what you need to do on Election Day:
You need to get up and come to minyan.  All Jews are required to pray daily.  Afterwards, eat a kosher breakfast because, a) you should keep kosher and b) one doesn’t eat before praying.  Throughout the day, conduct yourself in an upright and respectful manner, be sure to pray minchah and maariv, and without stealing time from your employer by going at a non-approved time – vote, because dina malchuta dina, the law of the land is the law.
My second comment then, is for all those issues and candidates on which you might vote, the Jewish issue for all of them is to remember, hevu z’hirin barashut – “be weary of those in authority.”  This campaign cycle stands out for the extreme partisanship we have experienced.  As Jews, whatever your political party, you as a Jew should be better than that.  You should be thoughtful, you should be sifting through the hyperbole.  You should be aware that neither party fully aligns with Jewish causes on all issues, and so you need to pick and choose carefully.
Heed me well and do these things this Election Day. 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Parshat Vayera - Is it Well with You?

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Parshaht Vayera - "Is it Well With You?"  In the Haftorah, when the Shunamite woman comes to visit the Prophet Elisha, he instructs his servant to greet her by asking, hashalom lach? Hashalom l’ishech?  “Is it well with you?  Is it well with your husband?”  She responds, Shalom, “It is well.”

The lesson is, that things aren’t well in the life of the Shunamite woman, and Elisha the Prophet, is wise enough to know that her “shalom” doesn’t really mean “shalom” he goes on to inquire what is wrong and to help her.

This is similar to the passage in our Torah reading in which Sarah, distraught that her handmaiden Hagar and Hagar’s son Ishmael, may be a threat to her own family, she expresses her concerns to her husband, Abraham, who is instructed, shema b’kolah, “listen to her voice.”  This doesn’t just mean, “do what she says,” but, as Rabbi S. R. Hirsch explains, it means, like in the case of Elisha, “listen​,​ for the hidden meaning, the underlying distress, the concerns not voiced.”

We ​become the most like prophets, the most like those to whom God speaks, this parshah is telling us, when we are able to really listen. Listen for the subtle ways in which God calls to us, and even more importantly, listen to the needs and hurts of our fellow human beings which they may not be ready or able to express out loud.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Nitzavim - The Easy Road to Hell

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Mark Twain said, “if you tell the truth you never have to remember anything.”   That is a lesson we find in our parshah this week, a good week to consider such an idea as the High Holy Days approach. 

In the parshah we read:  "For this [Torah] which I am commanding you today is not hidden from you; it is not far away. It is not in Heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go to Heaven and get it for us, so that we might hear it and do it?' For this matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it." (Deuteronomy 30:11-12, 14)

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav: "Only the path to Gehinnom (hell) is difficult and bitter. I see people spending restless days and sleepless nights plotting how to go about sinning, and afterwards they suffer with regrets and anxiety, which continue for the rest of their lives. But the way to the Garden of Eden is an easy one, short and pleasant for those who walk it."

Sometimes we make our lives too difficult. We devote time and energy trying to avoid doing the right thing, making excuses for bad acts, compromising principles, rationalizing our way out of truth, justice and righteousness – and then suffering with all the ill-effects our actions or inaction bring on. 

Rebbe Nachman teaches that a life of Torah, one of observance, but more importantly of honesty, righteousness, no regrets, no lies, and no guilt will be, in the long run, easier, when it comes to living with integrity and contentment.  It is, according to him, “easier” to be a mensch (a decent person) than it is to be a rasha (an evildoer).  As is said about the Torah, the Tree of Life - "its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace." (Proverbs 3:17)

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Ki Tavo - Complaining

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You may have heard me tell this story before.  Once I was at an interfaith Thanksgiving service, sitting next to a fellow rabbi, listening to the minister who was giving the message for the evening.  He referred to, “how there is always that one person in church who complains about everything.”  Turning to each other, without missing a beat the other rabbi and I said at the same time, “they only have one?”

Ki Tavo, our Torah portion this week, provides for us an insight into the Jewish love for complaining.  In Deuteronomy 29:4 it says, v’lo natan Hashem lachem lev lada’at v’eynaim lirot v’oznaim lishmoa ad hayom hazeh, “Yet not until today has the Lord given you a heart to know and eyes to see and ears to hear.”

The Torah commentator Rashi explains to us what this refers to.  Moses gave the copy of the Torah he had written to the tribe of Levi to keep.  The other tribes came to Moses and complained – why was he giving it only to them and not everyone? 

What was Moses’ reaction?  Rashi says he rejoiced and then spoke the words of this verse.  Why was Moses happy?  The people, with their complaints, were showing that they cared about the Torah – they wanted it to be theirs!  Sure, they might still be annoying and prone to whining and all that, but the story here is Moses was able to see past all that and recognize that the Torah really did matter to the people. 

That is perhaps why we Jews do so much complaining, complaints mean you care – that things matter! 

I hope I hear a lot of complaints from you all because it will mean you are concerned with things.  And if ever I offer a complaint to you, well, I hope it will be for the same reasons!

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Parshat Ki Tetsei - Finding Lost Relationships

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There is a beautiful lesson in our Torah portion, coming from the rule that teaches us we must help our friend’s stray animals if we see them wandering off, lo tireh et shor achicha o et seh’oh nidachim, v’hitalamta mehem, hashev t’shivem l’achicha – don’t see your brother’s ox or sheep go astray and hide from it, surely you will return them to your brother.”

The Rabbis note that here in the Torah, we speak of the missing animal of a friend of ours, it even says, brother.  Earlier in the Torah we are told much the same thing, but there, we are told it about our enemy and his missing animal.

So what gives?  The Rabbis say, it is quoted like this, one time saying enemy, the other friend, in order to teach us that in taking on the obligation of returning the animal, we should further seek to undo whatever stands between us and make our one-time enemy our friend.

One who fulfills the mitzvah of returning the lost animal, gains the opportunity to return something else that was lost also, the broken relationship can be returned to how it was before.  While we may not have so much opportunity for returning lost animals these days, the chance to help someone in need can often be just the medicine necessary to heal a hurt relationship, I know I have found that to be the case in my rabbinic work and I suspect others of you might have as well.  You pay the shivah visit or you say “shabbat shalom” to that one person and suddenly, they aren’t so bad anymore, and whatever was wrong between you starts to disappear. 

So, don’t let the oxen be what throw you off from learning the lesson here.  Had the Torah been written today I’m sure it would have said “smart phone” instead.  The lesson is the same; we can restore what is lost in our relationships if we remain willing to respond to the needs of others, whoever they may be. 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Parshat VaEtchanan - Begging to Do More

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Parshat Vaetchanan begins with Moses pleading, e’b’rah na v’ereh et ha’aretz ha’tovah, “let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land…”
Talmud and later rabbis note – why is Moses begging, or if not begging, than really desirous of going into the land of Israel?
The answer is that Moses wanted to do more mitzvot, and although they weren't in front of him (he had to go into Israel to perform them), he still felt the need to perform them, and did what he could to be able to complete them.
In contrast, when was the last time we begged anyone to be able to do a mitzvah?
In fact, do we even perform all the mitzvot that we can – that are right in front of us to do? 
How many times have we even deliberately walked away from a chance to do something godly, to help someone, to foster our Jewish spirit?
What could you do to be just a little more like Moses?  To appreciate and take advantage of and especially learn, about the many, many opportunities that are all around us to transform the prosaic, mundane world around us into the poetic, divine work of art the mitzvot let us make of the world. 
So I’m begging you – give this a thought, maybe even let me know what you come up with! 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

A Fool to be Wise - Devarim

“You Have to be a Fool to be Wise” – Parshat Devarim: As some of you may already know, my middle son can be, true to form for middle kids, a class clown. At the same time, he is also very curious and asks a lot of questions, which, now that I think about it, may also be another piece of the middle child trying to get attention thing. But the ability to ask questions without fear of looking stupid or foolish is, according to our Torah, actually a great trait, and it is true about anyone who possesses it. 
Moses, in this week’s reading, speaks of the help he received from the “people wise and knowledgeable and understanding…” (Dt. 1:13). It is worth noting for us that while there were roles for the hereditary tribal leaders, the leaders that assisted Moses in the day-to-day running of things were chosen on merit, and chiefly for wisdom. 
The Rabbis, of course, want to understand what wisdom is exactly. What does it mean to be wise? One of their most famous comments is part of a set of teachings, “who is rich? The one content with what he has. Who is strong? The one who controls his passions. Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone.” This seems at odds with another of their teachings, “the Divine Presence rests on those who are wise, strong [although this could also be “tall” but I don’t want to seem biased] and rich.” 
One of the Hasidic rabbis, Rabbi Nachum of Chernobyl, explained it as follows, “God doesn’t care about our external, material side. The Divine Presence rests on the one rich enough to be content, strong enough to hold their passions in check, and wise enough to learn from everyone.” 
Even if you run the risk of looking foolish in doing so, even if some of your teachers might not seem 
“worthy” to everyone else, choose to be wise – like one of the leaders of Israel in the Desert, be one of those people on whom the Divine Presence rests because you now know what it means to be truly wise.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Mattot-Masei: Know the Stops

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Mattot-Masei – “Know the Stops” – No doubt many of you have been or will be on vacation sometime this summer.  These family times together often produce the fondest of family memories – even when things don’t go perfectly.  When we look back the pictures and souvenirs from such trips strengthen our memories. 

This is important and mirrors a lesson from out of our double parshah this week.  The Torah gives all the place Jews stopped in 40 years in the desert from Egypt to Israel.  Why were they in the desert 40 years?  Why was it important to know places they stopped?

The Bible commentator - Rabbeinu Bechayeh explains God wanted to strengthen the faith of the Jews and so mentions places to remind them of miracles during those years: manna, the water well of Miriam, and the clouds of glory that protected them from dangers.

Remembering & reviewing helped them to remember and to have faith in God.

We can do same thing in our own lives. Looking back, we can sometimes piece together events and see God's hand guiding us along the way. Something may have looked very bad at the time it happened. Later, when we have time to look back and reflect, we see that the event was not bad at all, but a step on the way to something very good. Reviewing these acts of kindness that God has done for us in our lives will strengthen our own faith.

So – just like you would do with a family vacation, do with your life as a whole -– you can do this personally, by keeping a journal, or talking about important things with your family, or you can use the tools that Judaism has for keeping track of important things – like all of our holidays and rituals – those things help remind you about being good and about God, just like pictures of vacation would remind you!

Stop. Think. Put things together. See the big picture, it’s a good way to become a better person and grow closer to God.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Three Questions

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Last month, Rabbi Clifford Librach, a Reform rabbi, wrote an article for Tablet Magazine called, "Paying the Price for Abandoning Jewish Peoplehood," here is a link to it:
The article deals with a controversial speech given by the writer Michael Chabon at the commencement ceremonies for the Hebrew Union College, the seminary of Reform Judaism.  Chabon made comments considered by many as anti-Zionist and anti-Israel and criticized the desire within the Jewish community to see Jews marry each other.  
From that starting point, Librach's article makes an insider's assessment and critique of the current position of Reform and Conservative Judaism that is worth considering.  One passage that stood out as instructive to me was the following:
"What is the difference between “Reform Jews” and “Conservative Jews”? I certainly would not repair to religious ideology in order to answer this. Most Jews do not have a religious ideology. And I would not answer this by looking only at venues of affiliation. These can be governed by many random factors such as perceived pre-school quality, b’nai mitzvah date availability, location, etc. No, I would look to a much simpler and direct formula. There are only three questions.
1. Is the public observance of reasonably predictable standards of kashrut important to you?
2. Is it your taste and preference that the central religious motif (“services”) of the synagogue be one of presentation or experience? To put this another way: is the essential synagogue experience for you the performed singing of Sh’ma Yisrael or the private recitation of the Amidah?
3. Do you engage in any home-based Jewish observance other than a 'Passover Seder'?"
These three questions are useful in understanding where we are currently as a community.  Kashrut observance in some manner by the community speaks to both a sense that community "counts" and that the ritual, cultural, spiritual meaning of kashrut has some kind of value for us.  "Experiencing" services in some way as a participant sets prayer apart for us from the theater or a concert by making it an activity we "do" - again for all the various, contradictory and beautiful reasons one might pray.  And finally, a home marked by regular, year-round Jewish observances is one where in the most private, intimate, personal part of our lives, Judaism plays a role.  
The other valuable thing about these three questions is that they are very easy to achieve and attain for anyone looking to make Judaism's guidance and goodness part of their lives.  That is what primarily motivates me in sharing this with you.  Read the article, talk to me about all of it, but see what you can do to answer these three questions in your life - and NSJC will see what it can do to help you!
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benson