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