Thursday, September 18, 2014

Abraham Failed God's Test, but God Loved him Anyway!

Each Rosh Hashanah, we read the horrid tale of the Akedah (Genesis 22), the almost sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Commentators throughout the ages characterize this story as an example of the heights of faith. Abraham loved God so much he was willing to give up the child he waited so long to bear.

But in as much as this might have been a test of Abraham, I read the story as a clear indication that Abraham failed the test.

Consider this: Did God really command Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering? Read closely. According to one commentary, Midrash Tanhuma, it all hinges on one word – olah. In the Torah, God said to Abraham v’haaleihu sham l’olah, bring up Isaac as an olah. The Hebrew word olah, comes from the root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning, “to rise up.”

Must olah here mean, “sacrifice,” as in the smoke of the sacrifice rises up? Or might it be connected rather to a more familiar word aliyah, also from the Hebrew root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning “spiritual uplift?” In this reading, God only said, “raise up your son with an appreciation of your devotion to Me.” Perhaps Abraham was so dazzled to be speaking to God that he became confused. What if he misunderstood God’s intended purpose?

Rashi, the greatest Biblical commentator of all time, also hangs his interpretation on the same word. He explains (on Genesis 22:2), perhaps God was saying, “When I said to you ‘Take your son’… I did not say to you, sh’chateihu, ‘slaughter him,’ but only ha’aleihu, ‘bring him up.’ Now that you have brought him up, introduce him to Me, and then take him back down.” Instead of wanting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God really only wanted him to spend some spiritual “quality time” with his son. Had Abraham only paid close attention, he might have spared himself, Isaac, and Sarah a significant amount of stress and pain.

But in a strange twist, the angel of God who stopped Abraham from killing his son responds with love, not rebuke. God praised Abraham. Why would God praise him if Abraham misunderstood the command? Perhaps God, through the angel, reaffirms to Abraham how much God loves him, but also signals that Abraham and his followers should no longer employ cruel or intimidating means to show their love for God.

This need not, however, be understood as condoning Abraham’s actions. Rather, the angel’s words remind me of that parent who walked into his freshly painted house. Dad is greeted at the door by his young son who, with a big smile on his face, says, “Daddy, come see how much I love you.” The boy brings his father into the next room and proceeds to proudly show him a picture drawn in magic marker on the living room wall. It was a red heart, inside of which were the words, “Daddy, I love you.” How does a parent respond to such a display of love, especially after spending thousands of dollars to paint the house just right? Most of us would yell, and yell loudly. But if we stopped first to think about it, we might say, with tears in our eyes, “I love you too, my son. Try to use paper next time. And you may not write on the walls. But, I love you too!” Similarly, through the words of the angel, God, the patient One, who cherishes Abraham, teaches love and forgiveness as an example for future generations.

Now consider this… Prior to the Akedah, each encounter between God and Abraham occurs in direct one-on-one conversations. But from this point on, God never again speaks to Abraham directly. All further communication is passed through an angel. Why? Because Abraham simultaneously passed and failed the test. He showed his love of God, yes, but he employed violent means to pursue that love. The use of an intermediary – the angel – proclaims a message for future generations: Abraham really didn't listen to God’s teachings of compassion, did he?

Originally posted in 2007

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Being a Big Kid at Summer Camp (URJ Camp Newman)

I sit here up at Faculty Row of the URJ Camp Newman (Santa Rosa, CA) as Shabbat evening comes to an end. We just finished enjoying an inspirational all camp service, delicious dinner by Tammy, awesome brownies for dessert, a raucous song session under the stars and an energetic (read "exhausting" hour of Israeli dance.

Now Jewish composer and singer Dan Nichols and Fresno's Rabbi Rick Winer are leading the gathered group of faculty in singing old favorite Jewish songs from summers gone by.

Still dressed in our Shabbat whites, we faculty are seemingly reliving our younger days as campers and camp staff. Really though, our faculty Shabbat gathering - a unique combination of singing, laughing, noshing (eating a lot of small bites to duck the big calories), and joking - evokes a unique kind of camp l'dor vador (from generation to generation).

We all grew up in one of the camps of the Union for Reform Judaism, where our hearts and outlooks were shaped in deeply meaningful ways for all time. Now we each dedicate precious downtime in our professional lives volunteering at camp to ensure that the subsequent generations of Jewoah youth enjoy an updated version of vibrant living Judaism to sustain them in the years ahead.

We were kids back then, singing, struggling, loving camp and embracing our Judaism. Now most of us have kids here at Camp Newman, (our own and those of our congregational family) who are similarly singing, struggling, loving camp and embracing their Judaism.

How fortunate are we that we get to see the relevance of this 24/7 Judaism and it's purposeful youth engagement, even as our children move from camper to counselor and beyond.

Of course we come to camp for more than just nourishing our own souls and those of our children. We come because at camp we quickly rediscover the unvarnished bountiful beauty that is our Jewish tradition. We practice our creativity here at Camp Newman with (and on) 1400 youth and college students, and then return home to our congregations and organizations prepared to reenergize them the same way.

Too soon havdala will arrive, and with it the end of Shabbat. May the light of the havdala candle remind us always of how interconnected are our Jewish homes; our house, congregation, Israel and camp form one seamless whole that brings warmth and holiness to life. And our lives.

May it be so always. Shabbat shalom.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Experiencing Israel with Amazing People - Sydney Epstein's Birthright Experience

Or Ami college student Sydney Epstein writes:

On May 22, I jetted off for what turned out to be the most incredible experience. Birthright allows you to reconnect with your Jewish heritage in the Holy Land itself. After a long 12-hour plane ride along with 40 other peers, I finally landed in Israel. Immediately following, we began ascending the fortress of Masada and floating in the Dead Sea! Not a bad start!

Throughout the trip, we explored every inch of the country. We traveled all through the desert and northern Israel. For me, the trip was not only about the sights we saw and the places we visited. It was about making new Jewish friends and connecting with my peers on a new level. They truly made this trip an unforgettable experience. When people would ask me, "What has been your favorite part of Birthright," I would give the same answer: the people I got to experience Israel with.

Throughout the trip, I realized that 10 days was way too short! In the end, I extended my stay in Tel Aviv. I could not bear the thought of leaving Israel so soon! Although this was my second time in Israel, Birthright gave me a whole new perspective about the country. These past 10 days really opened my eyes up to the beauty and history Israel has to offer. I highly encourage anyone to take advantage of this incredible opportunity!!

Thank you Rabbi Paul Kipnes for helping me get on the trip of my choice!

Did your Or Ami child go on a birthright trip? We'd love to feature his/her experience here. Send me an email and we will reach out to him/her.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Rabbi, Can We Talk about God? Pelted with Questions from Teen Campers

Ever have one of those moments when your child reaches out to you and all you really want to do is collapse from exhaustion? It happens at home and it happens at camp. So what do you do?

I am up here at URJ Camp Newman, the Reform movement camp in Santa Rosa, CA, leading our delegation of 42 people from Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) for Jewish summer fun. After a full fantastic day of spiritual hikes, meditation teaching, service planning and camper counseling, I was hot, tired and worn out.

Rabbi, Want to Talk about God?
Yet, no sooner did I sit down for a little quiet time when I heard someone call out, "We're having a conversation here about God. Rabbi, do you want to join us?"

Looking up, I saw three of our young people from Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) sitting at a picnic table smiling at me.

I had just finished an intense conversation with a staff member about the slow death of her grandmother as she described being there as the last breath left her body, followed by a phone call with a dear friend who is now facing a similar situation with her mother. I was looking forward to putting my feet up. But I responded from my heart and not from my weary bones, saying "How can I turn down such a wonderful invitation like that!?"

So three of us - my wife Michelle, a faculty artist and I - joined Lisa, Matthew and Ethan for the best experience of my day.

Pelting Us with Questions
They asked so many questions, which I answered initially with "Well, what do you all think?" Only after they answered would I share my thoughts.

How many of the teens at temple do you think are really atheists? (Most, I suggested were agnostics, unsure about God, but you can be a great Jew even if you don't believe in God.) 
How do we pray if all the prayers seem to offer only one view of what God is? (Read the prayers as poetry and then mine them as metaphors. Or supplement the traditional prayers with kavannot (spiritual interpretations) of your own. Or let's write some prayers which speak to a spectrum of beliefs. The rabbis of old did it; you can too!) 
Do you believe in God with the white beard and the throne on high? (Once I imagined God that way, until I learned that there are so many different Jewish God ideas - I blogged about 18 Jewish God concepts - which are more in keeping with what I feel is closer to my truth. Let's find some time later and I'll teach you about them.)

What's your favorite God concept? (The internet as a metaphor for God. Not a being, but an existence, a presence. The One without end is here, there and everywhere, accessible if only you open a browser - your heart or soul - and allow yourself to connect in.).

Time Flies When You're Talking God
We lost track of time as the campers asked questions, offered answers to each other, and thought deeply about the reality of The Holy One. When their counselors came around to collect these campers, we all expressed sadness that this moment had to end. And yet, we smiled at each other, knowing that we had taken our relationships and our spiritual journeying to the next level.

"Let's do this again!" suggested one of the campers. "Wouldn't miss it for anything," I responded.

Why do I Come to Camp Newman each Summer? 
Because in the midst of the long days, chance encounters quickly become deep conversations, allowing this rabbi the opportunity to elevate and nurture meaningful Jewish spirituality. I cannot wait for the next conversation.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Shavuot: Celebrating the Gift We Keep Receiving

We parents love to shower our children with gifts.

The appearance of a wrapped presents can stop even the most rambunctious children in their tracks. After a quick intake of breath, eyes go wide and squeals of excitement quickly follow. Some children then engage in frenzied activity, tearing off the wrapping paper, while others slowly and methodically remove every piece of tape, savoring the splendor of anticipation. When the contents beneath the wrapping paper are revealed, delight and happiness soon follow.

And then come the thanks. Nothing quite compares to the hug of a kid who just received an unexpected gift. All of it – a kiss, words of thanks, that smile from ear to ear – can melt even the most hard hearted of us.

Gifts Represent of Underlying Emotions of Love 
The giving of a gift testifies to the love we feel for someone. A present can convey materially that which we sometimes have difficulty expressing verbally. That I value you. That I love you. That making you happy makes me happy.

In most American Jewish homes, presents are shared on Chanukah, a practice that evolved from the tradition of giving gelt (coins) and from this holiday's proximity to Christmas. In Jewish homes in Israel and elsewhere, presents are given on Rosh Hashana to celebrate the New Year, and on Pesach to celebrate our people's return to freedom.

Shavuot as a Festival of Gift Giving and Receiving
Perhaps the most traditional, yet under-celebrated, opportunity for gift giving occurs on Shavuot. Originally an agricultural festival marking the conclusion of the grain harvest, Shavuot is also known as Chag ha-Katsir (Festival of Reaping in Exodus 23:16) and was celebrated in Biblical times by bringing the bikkurim (first fruits) to the Temple in Jerusalem. These gifts to God were brought from among the Seven Species for which the Land of Israel is praised: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (Deut. 8:8).

Over time, Shavuot morphed through rabbinic creativity into a festival celebrating the ultimate gift from God. Wrapped up in the multi-sensory story of our people's experience at Mt Sinai (Exodus 18:18ff) - ground-shaking, light-flashing, thunder-booming, Shavuot relives Matan Torah (the gift of Torah), the moment that God gave Torah to the Jewish people.

We teach that Holy One loves our people so much that God gave us the most precious gift – next to our children, of course – and that is the Torah.

Anticipating Shavuot, parents can connect children spiritually to our Jewish people through the joy of receiving a gift.

Celebrate Gift Giving
Read the story of the giving of Torah in Exodus 18:1-19:15. Flash the lights in the bedroom to simulate lighting, bang on walls or pots and pans to recall the thunder. Shake your body all over for earth shaking fun.

Tell Your Children (of all ages) This:
You are the recipient of one of the greatest gifts ever. It is our Torah. Written in a scroll, our Torah represents a collection of stories, teachings, morals, values, rules of how to live, ideas about God and so much more. It is a gift from God, a sign that you are lovable and loved. Torah is your inheritance, that which you receive from me (and if appropriate, from your other parent), from your grandparents and others before us. You are part of shalshelet hakabbalah (the unbroken chain of receiving Torah), passed down midor lador (from generation to generation).  
Torah is a gift to be preciously cared for and repeatedly unwrapped. Torah is filled with stories and ideas that are gifts to the whole world.

Torah is yours. So don't wait to long. Claim you place among our people.

Then find a way to help your child receive the gift of Torah.

  • Give your child a nice gift that reflects Torah and/or Judaism. Tell him or her that since today we celebrate the other wonderful gift today, the gift of Torah, today you want him or her to enjoy this Torah related gift.
  • Discover a new book and read it together. Torah, and the study of it, made the Jewish people Am Hasefer (people of the book). Dedicate yourselves to reading the wonderful books from PJ Library or seek out other Jewish books to enhance Jewish connections.
  • Watch the Torah portion cartoons on, which take complex ideas and make them accessible to all ages. Commit to watching them regularly.
  • Eat cheesecake. Once Torah was given, it became clear that our ancestors had no kosher meat. So the people ate dairy for a few days. Traditionally Jews ate blintzes. But, in our family, we prefer cheesecake, in as many flavored as possible, symbolizing the 70 difference languages in which Torah was given.
  • Make a dairy dinner together creating as many dishes as you can. Consider the many ways grilled cheese and macaroni and cheese can be prepared.
  • Go visit a temple and ask if you and your family can hold the Torah. A gift given not just to the rabbis and teachers, Torah is an inheritance for us all. So go claim your birthright (you may need to schedule an appointment first).

Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Mathematician's Dream Blessing

Two, 4, 6, 8 … What comes next? 
Once you recognize this as a sequence of even numbers, counted by twos, then you know that the numbers 10 and 12 come next.

Two, 3, 5, 7, 11 … What comes next?
This sequence of prime numbers (numbers divisible only by themselves and 1) continues with 13 and 17.

There is elegance in number sequences. Patterns discovered reveal a logical underpinning to the world in which we live. As a former physics major (who spent two-thirds of my college years deeply ensconced in the intricacies of the laws of our universe), I am energized by the patterns that define our world.

British philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) expressed it this way:
“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere … yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.”
Even Torah contains mathematics that illumine the beauty of the existence in which we live. While the numbers within Torah may not unlock hidden biblical codes that prophesy the future, they do reveal the elegance that is God’s Creation.

So when a discerning bar mitzvah student pointed out that his Torah portion, Naso, contained two amazing numerical sequences, I was fascinated.

Parashat Naso contains Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Benediction, a blessing first recited by the Israelite priests on God’s instruction as they blessed the people. It has maintained a central place in Jewish prayer, being recited in the ancient Jerusalem Temples, during Shabbat morning services, in Jewish homes on Friday night and at almost every Jewish life-cycle ceremony.

Birkat Kohanim is a simple yet complex three-line prayer:

Yivarechecha Adonai v’yishm’recha.
Ya’er Adonai panav elecha veechuneka.
Yeesa Adonai panav elecha v’yasem l’cha shalom.

May Adonai bless you and watch over you. May God’s countenance shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May God’s countenance be lifted up to you, and grant you peace.

Three lines of Hebrew, 15 words and 60 letters in total. Look closely and beautiful patterns emerge.

Count the Hebrew words in each line: 3, 5 ... What comes next?

The number 7, completing two patterns — odd numbers counted by twos, and the next prime number. Both answers capture sophisticated arithmetic construction.

Different rabbis tried to assign meaning to this pattern. The Spanish rabbi Bachya taught that this pattern reminds us of the foundation for all blessings: the three patriarchs, the five books of the Torah and the seven heavens of mystical meaning. To him, our ancestry, our sacred book and our spiritual universe are all aligned in each moment of blessing.

Count the letters in each line: 15, 20... What comes next?

The number 25, the next when counting by fives. What a wonderful progression in our modern decimal system — 15, 20, 25. Or, if you add the number of letters together, you get 60, recognized by Italian biblical scholar Moshe David Cassuto (1883-1951) as the basis of the ancient Babylonian sexagesimal (base 60) system.

And it gets better.

Next week, at the inauguration of the mishkan (the movable wilderness sanctuary), each tribal head brings identical sets of sacrifices. The greatest offerings, in quantity and, apparently, in prominence, were the korbanot shelamim (peace offerings). Each leader brings 15 animals: five each of rams, goats and sheep. Together, 12 tribes brought 60 of each animal.

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 14:18) connects these offerings with Birkat Kohanim. Birkat Kohanim — containing 60 letters — concludes with the hope for peace (shalom), while the peace offerings (shelamim) contains 60 gifts to the Divine. Montreal scholar Shai Peretz notes:
“Given the strong correspondence between the two adjacent Torah sections, the question is of the chicken and the egg. Which element impacts on the other? Do our offerings to God yield blessings, or do God’s blessings lead us to make offerings to God?”
These fascinating questions hint at a deeper reality. As my bar mitzvah student Quinn Chambers suggested,
“It is interesting to find these patterns in the Torah, since Torah is filled with so many laws and religious ideas. Perhaps these mathematical patterns show that the Torah is not just a bunch of pretty ideas, but rather that it is also connected to the laws like mathematics and logic that govern life.” 
Once you recognize these patterns in the text, it becomes more difficult to consider math/science and religion to be completely separate arenas of existence.

May the mathematical beauty of Birkat Kohanim open your eyes to the religious elegance in our world.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

So Everyone Has a Home They Can Afford

A Teaching by Rabbi Julia Weisz 
Rabbi Weisz is my partner-rabbi at Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA.

Several Saturdays a year, thirty at-risk youth from Panorama City step out of vans onto the beautifully kept green grass parks of Calabasas. Or Ami teenagers greet them, whistles around their necks, and act as their coaches for the day. Leading them in water balloon toss, football, capture the flag, basketball, kickball, arts and crafts and other sports activities. These Sports Clinics are for New Directions for Youth, an after-school program that helps keep children and teens off the street, out of drugs and alcohol and away from gangs. They are an amazing opportunity for Or Ami teens, families and rabbis to interact with individuals who live in a very different reality from their own.

A few weeks ago, at our last clinic, the NDY staff gathered around, munching on bagels generously provided by Or Ami families. I went over to welcome them and asked how they were all doing. Two staff members, in particular, expressed feelings of frustration and sadness. These two staff members are responsible for picking up the New Directions children and driving the vans to the Sports Clinics.

They explained that just that morning, the staff picked up two children from a homeless shelter. The month before they were picked up from an apartment. They explained that this was a trend the staff had been noticing for some time. Most of the parents of these children work full time jobs. Some even pick up extra work in the evenings and on weekends leaving young children alone with no care or supervision. The parents shared with the staff that they could not afford to pay rent AND provide food for their children. So, they had to choose. They chose food over shelter, left their apartment and moved into a homeless shelter.

Having to choose food over shelter.
We live in a world and in a state where many working families cannot have both food AND shelter. This is appalling.

It is stories like the ones from the NDY staff that open our eyes to the affordable housing crisis in California. Currently, 22% of households in California are paying more than 50% of pre tax income for housing. Even worse, 39% of working households in Los Angeles spend more than half their income on housing. Spending more than half their income on housing is absurd, but this is the reality.

I love getting my nails done. While chatting with my manicurist I hear many of her personal stories. She works in Calabasas but lives in Little Tokyo in a small two bedroom apartment with six relatives, all to make rent more affordable. She shares a bedroom with her husband and two teenage daughters. She commutes so far away because she cannot afford to live close to work. This is her reality.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a friend's mother. She is in her 60s and shared with me how stressed she is each month when the bill comes from her mother's senior living apartment building. She cannot believe how expensive it is for her mother to live there and is considering moving her in with a roommate. Her mother is 93 years old. A 93 year old with a stranger for a roommate? This is her reality.

The housing crisis is not just a Panorama City issue but a California one.
The reality, not a lot of California state money is going to affordable homes. The reality, so many Californians CANNOT pay their rent or mortgage.

Historically, Jews are all too familiar with the need for shelter. Our ancestors, our matriarchs and patriarchs -Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel and Leah - all lived in tents, shelters susceptible to heavy rains, strong winds, desert heat and freezing cold. For years, the Israelite people wandered in the desert without a permanent dwelling place wondering when and where they would find a home. And Jews wandered again without a permanent home when first emigrating from Europe to America.

As Reform Jews, we value the importance of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. We hear the call of the 8th century prophet Isaiah, who charged the Israelite people to bring those without a home into the house.

We can help bring those without a home into a house.

Here is how we can help.
Reform California is comprised of Reform rabbis and lay leaders around the state who are working in partnerships across race, class and faith to help repair our broken state. Right now we are working on bringing more affordable housing to California.

There are a few proposals asking that the state allocate money for the building of these homes that will be presented on Capitol Hill the end of June. The proposals focus on investing significant Cap and Trade funds in the building of affordable homes in California. All housing built using Cap and Trade Funds must lead to the reduction of Green House Gas Emissions. There is an opportunity here to both build affordable homes in California AND reduce greenhouse gases to protect our environment. The Legislature will be voting and we have the chance to raise our voices in support of building more affordable homes in California for those in need.

LEARN MORE: By reading this information sheet.

EMAIL YOUR STATE LEGISLATORS: I invite you to contact your California State Senator and Assembly Member, if you would like to support the proposal to allocate a significant amount of money to building affordable homes. You can send an email to your Senator and Assembly member by clicking here.

ATTEND THE LOBBY DAY: If fighting for affordable housing is an important issues for you to tackle, or you are interested in seeing what it is like to get a bunch of Rabbis and lay leaders from California synagogues together around social justice issues, join me in Sacramento on June 2. We will fly there in the morning, lobby at Capitol Hill, hear and share stories around the housing crisis, we will make sure our voices are heard before flying back in the later afternoon. We can work together to help bring shelter to those in need. Email Rabbi Julia Weisz for more information.

Shelter Us Beneath Thy Wings
The Hashkiveinu prayer is said each night before going to sleep. In it, we ask God to spread over us a shelter of peace. It is hard to envision someone feeling that peace when they are fighting every day for shelter.

May we someday live in a world where homes are affordable, where children can sleep in their own beds, not in homeless shelters. We can work together to help build shelter for those in need.

Only then, will we know peace.

Ken Yehi Ratzon, May this be God's will. Amen.