Bereshit: Creation and closets

organize closetIt doesn’t get better than this. Ok, I know I say that about a lot of Torah portions, but this? This is the beginning. The genesis of it all. Genesis. The beginning.

But where to start…If ever there was a jam-packed parasha, huh? Creation of it all – the cosmos, the natural world, the humanity of it all. It began with chaos.

Chaos. The world was unformed and chaotic, void, tohu v’vohu (Gen 1:2)

Chaos appeals to me. Actually, that’s not true. Order appeals to me, but so does the idea of making order out of chaos. I’m not always successful, but it is my fervent desire to do so. It’s a goal, a dream, a place where I imagine there is calm and serenity. I am not overstating this. This last weekend, in the middle of Sukkot, it seemed like everyone I knew was switching over their closets. Moving the summer clothes out, and moving the sweaters and boots in. There are probably people who have big enough closets for both, but I don’t. Anyway, the annual fashion show is probably the only snapshot moment in the year when there is a moment of perfect order and balance in my closeted universe. It is a brief but powerful, dare I say divine, moment.

The fact that God started from chaos is odd when you think about it. The JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis notes that one would think that God could have pretty much created a perfectly organized universe right from the start, just like God could probably have created a perfect world all at once, rather than spreading it out over six days. God did neither.  But why start with something that you were just going to change anyway? JPS states, “The quintessential point of the narrative is the idea of ordering that is the result of divine intent.” (p.6) Makes you think there’s a lesson in here about process over product.

Insight might be found in the words used in this part of Bereshit. The creation word at this point is bara, as in, “Bereshit bara Elohim….When God was creating in the beginning…..”, but from then on, God created the things in the world with vayomer, speaking, (And God said, Let there be….). That is, until verse 27, when we read, “And God created (bara) Adam in God’s image, in the image of God, God created (bara) Adam, male and female, God created (bara) them. Three times in one sentence, all regarding the beginning of humanity, when all the other beginnings in the chapter come into being with words, “And God said……” Seriously, the Torah is making a point here.

“It is a fundamental biblical teaching that the original, divinely ordained order in the physical world has its counterpart in the divinely ordered universal moral order to which the human race is subject.” (JPS Commentary, pg 6)

Over the last couple of weeks, we have considered new beginnings; the new year, new moon, new harvests to bring in. This Shabbat is Simchat Torah – beginning again, literally rolling back to the start. This Shabbat we turn inward again, seeking to smooth the turbulence and bring our own world into being.   When the world is whole and healthy, it is in balance, in order. It is like bara, from Divine intent. It’s the same for us – we are whole when we are in balance, and in order, also manifesting the Divine intent.  We weren’t created with evil or badness – just confusion. For that, we strive each day, to calm the chaos, and bring order to our lives. And our closets.

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Yom Kippur: Endings and beginnings

yom-kippurI didn’t post last week and it feels like a lot longer than that.  But it’s been so busy, that to some extent, I was grateful for the “break”.  One week is long enough…so here we are again.

This has been a tough week in some ways; it really didn’t feel very “New Year”ish.  I sang two services as cantorial soloist, and for the second one, though short, it was more like rabbi/cantor.  Read Torah, fed 20 people, and POOF! Rosh Hashanah was over.

These ten days have been filled with getting back to the inbox I ignored, getting back to volunteering for Limmud Chicago which is Nov 15, 16 (don’t miss it! register now! Neshama Carlebach and Josh Nelson are going to be there!), and then there’s actual life, which in this instance, took the form of death, actually.

Two people died this week; two people I didn’t know well at all, but whose death affected people I love.  One was my friend’s father.  He was old and frail, in a care facility.  The other was the mother of my daughter’s friend, and she just collapsed.  She would have been about my age, and it sent my daughter into a tailspin.  It’s hard to hug a sobbing child when she’s 800 miles away.  If someone else’s mom can just drop, anyone’s can.  Hers. Anyone’s.

Who shall live and who shall die.

I thought, of course, about the final parasha in the Torah.  It’s called Haazinu, and some say Moses didn’t really write it because it describes things that happen after his death. Moses finally dies.  He knew it was coming; it’s unclear if the people knew it, too.  He found out ages ago (in Torah time) that he wouldn’t make it into the Land.  Did he share that knowledge with anyone?  Thoughts for another time.

But Moses did spend the entire book of Deuteronomy preparing the people for the fact that he wouldn’t always be around.  They were going to have to learn to live and flourish and carry on without him.  All he taught, all they experienced together – it was going to have to enough. Moses’ brain-dump that is the last book of the Torah was just going to have to suffice.

How do we know when all we’ve taught our children is enough?  How do we know when everything we’ve tried to teach them has sunk in? We don’t know how long we’ll be around, and that’s more and more in our thoughts as we age, and as we come around to this time of the year again.

Here were two people, two parents, at different stages in their lives, but whatever they did up until then will have to have been enough, because there is no more.

But tefillah, teshuva, tzedakah and  cancel the stern decree.  Prayer, repentance, and generosity.

That’s all we have.  Whether or not we can actually “cancel the stern decree”, I don’t know. Maybe lives filled with prayer, generosity and repentance will make whatever stern decrees that come our way a little easier to bear.  Maybe a life lived that way will make our impact sink in, and stick around for our children, for however long we are around.

I don’t know, but it’s a place to start, as I sit in synagogue for Neilah, as the gates close and another Yom Kippur ends.

Wishing you all an easy fast, and to be sealed for a good year.



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Shana Tovah: Happy New Year

shofar_and_applesIt’s getting pretty crazy around here – I don’t know how it happens, but every year, the date of the New Year sneaks up on me.  Same date, every year – Tishrei 1 – but it still sneaks up. Whoa. 5775.

So, what with preparing for services (I act as cantorial soloist for an alternative service each Rosh Hashanah at a synagogue and lead a service for a senior center) and work and cooking and other “stuff”….well, this week’s Dvar Torah just isn’t getting written.

That’s ok – let me just say this.  There is a line in this week’s parasha, Netzavim, that says “Lo bashamayim hi” – It’s not in the heavens.  One of my favorite lines.  What’s the “it”?  The Torah. It’s Jewish living- not religious living, not this mitzvah or that commandment…it’s living in a Jewish heart-melody.  It’s here. It’s in our grasp.  It’s not too esoteric or foreign, or out of reach.  It’s ours, to use, learn, grapple with, argue with, turn over and over.

I hope this year you find time to use, learn, grapple with, argue with, turn over and over. Jewish learning is a joyous lifelong journey. Take a step, try something on, see if fits, and then try something else.  To start the year off right, check out Limmud Chicago.  It’s the fifth annual festival of Jewish learning, Nov 16, 17.  Details on website.  Art, history, music, text study, Israel, and more.   Neshama Carlebach, Josh Nelson, Amichai Lau Lavie, Joel Grishaver….and you!  Registration is open, and early prices go through Sept. 30.   Get on it!!

Sometimes it’s a great, vast silence out there – not sure who’s reading, who’s reacting, who’s upset, who’s disagreeing.  I always welcome your comments at the end of these posts.  Let’s talk a little more this year.

I may find a few things to share over the next week, but for now, I wish you all a year of sweetness and joy, health and purpose, sustenance (paychecks!) and meaning.

Shana Tova u’metukah.



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Ki Tavo: Approaching a new beginning

mt gerazim mt ebalThat which is unknown, will be known.

One might think that this is a statement all about the High Holidays that are coming up in a couple of weeks (!).  And that would be true, but it also encapsulates a part of this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo.

This parasha is about a balance between privacy and public awareness, acting as an individual and acting as part of a community.  In Ki Tavo, we read the last of the recap of laws Moses lays down for the Israelites, before they move into the Land.  The focus moves to what actually is supposed to happen when they get there, and settle in.  There are rituals of bringing the first fruits, presenting them to the priest that happens to be in charge at the time (not necessarily the Temple.)  And then there are the lists of blessings and curses.  Very explicit curses, and rather more general blessings.

The Torah describes all the people gathered between Mt Gerazim and Mt Ebal, six tribes on each mountain.  Then the Levites are supposed to proclaim the curses in a loud voice, and the people respond, “Amen” to each one.  Now, it’s not the actual curse (consequence) that’s listed, it’s what a person would do that would engender a curse from God.  It’s a “don’t do this” list.  (Deut 27:15-26)

The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) commentary on Deuteronomy notes that there is a pattern to the 12 curses listed.  The first and last ones talk about the relationship between a person and God:  cursed is anyone who makes a “molten image”, which is the ultimate betrayal of the exclusive relationship God and Israel has; and the last one curses the person who doesn’t uphold the Teaching (Torah) and observe them.

The ones in between, JPS says, are like a concentric circle.  The  four “inner” curses are about very private behavior, specifically sexual behavior.  The next circle out are about social sins, like misdirecting a blind person, moving a person’s landmark, or accepting a bribe in a capital case.

Much like the list of “averot” (misdeeds, wrongdoings) we recite during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, these cover both the ones that other people know about, and the ones that only God would know about;  that which is unknown, will be known.  Because these behaviors are proclaimed in public, in both Ki Tavo and the High Holiday liturgy, no one can claim that they didn’t know it was wrong.

These curses in Ki Tavo are supposed to be read out immediately after coming into the Land, at the edge of a new life.  Each year, we too are at the edge of a new life, a rededication, a renewal, a re-statement of commitment to behaving in ways that enhance our personal spiritual lives, the society in which we live, and the acts that are intensely private.

We are midway through the month of Elul, leading up to the holidays.  Ki Tavo’s not a bad way to approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.


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Ki Tetzei: A wedding, a community, the next step

chuppahKi Tetzei is such a mish-mash of ideas.  It’s kind of like Moses’ brain dump at the end of Deuteronomy, just as he is about to leave the people, go up the mountain and die.

I have no intention of going up that mountain anytime soon, but the idea of laying our wisdom at the feet of our children is not new.  This last weekend, I was at a wedding and had the opportunity to speak to the couple before they signed their Ketubah, their marriage contract.  I told them about about Ki Tetzei.  I told them how the people were about to cross over, just as they were, into a new land where only they could go.

I told them that just as this was the last chance for Moses to tell the people everything he could remember to say, hoping they would take it all to heart as they began their new lives,  the bride and groom were there,  having received years of teaching and guidance from everyone in that room;   and we all hoped that they took it all to heart, too.

The Torah teaches some core values for the people, and for a new couple building a new family, too.  Just like the man who sees his fellow’s ox astray and must help get it back to the owner, be good to other people, and act with kindness.   Just as you must take care to build a house with a parapet, so no one would fall off and hurt themselves, be a good and conscientious neighbor, protecting others around you….especially each other.  Just as you are not to turn over a slave who has sought refuge with you, be a place of refuge for the community and each other.  Be honest in business, and be honest in the business of tending to your relationship.  The bride particularly liked the text about being her husband’s primary focus for the first year of marriage (“….to give happiness to the woman he has married.” Duet 24:5)  The family unit is to be protected and cherished.   And as Torah tells us it’s important to be kind to the needy, regardless of whether they are “countrymen” or strangers,  I told them to live lives of ethical and moral awareness.

Like the Israelites, they will build a community based on the teachings and values of those that guided them to that point.  They will be on their own, but not alone, because Torah teaches us to build a community that reflects those values.

Did Moses send off the Israelite people with a mixture of joy and tears?  Certainly, we did.



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Shoftim: Pursuing Justice

scales of justiceTzedek tzedek tirdof….Justice justice shall you pursue that you may thrive and occupy the Land that Adonai your God is giving you.  (Deut 16:20)

The Torah doesn’t mince words.  Neither does it repeat words unnecessarily, so there must be something to be learned from the fact that the word “justice” is used together in this week’s parasha, Shoftim.   One can almost feel the urgency behind the words, especially when the word “tirdof” (pursue) is used.  Torah doesn’t say “justice, justice you shall do” or “Justice justice you shall work towards”;  it’s pursue.  Get on with it, and don’t give up.

But still, why say “justice” twice?  Of course, the rabbis of the Talmud had thoughts about it.  Rabbi Ashi (first editor of the Babylonian Talmud, lived in Babylonia and re-established the Great Academy) said the first one refers to decisions based on strict law, and the second refers to decisions based on compromise.

Other rabbis referred to the distinction between letter of the law and spirit of the law, “Jerusalem was destroyed only because they gave judgments in accordance with Biblical law…they based their judgments strictly upon Biblical law, and did not go beyond the letter of the law” (Bava Metzia 30b)  The rabbis suggested that, when a case was ended, the judges had to ask themselves, simply, “Was justice served?”, and if not, they needed to go back and look for the spirit of the law.

When you pair these thoughts with the latter part of the verse, “…that you may thrive and occupy the Land that Adonai your God is giving you.”, it’s clear that not just our survival in the Land that is at stake, but our ability to thrive there.

We would do well to ask ourselves, here and in Israel, whether justice is being pursued these days.  As of this writing, there is a cease fire between Israel and Gaza, at last.  Thousands of people on both sides of the war have been killed, injured and displaced from their homes.  Thousands of people on both sides have been scarred and damaged inside their hearts by having to live in fear and danger.  Once again, Israel and the Palestinians are faced with the need to figure out next steps.  Now is a good time to think about “tzedek tzedek tirdof “ in order to continue thriving in the Land

The occupation must end.  Call it compromise, call it the answer, “No” to the question of whether or not justice is being served, call it the spirit over the letter of the law, but it must end.  It is distorting the pursuit of justice, for it takes place under an unjust situation.  The rabbis said strict adherence to the law becomes destructive, for we begin to worship the law itself, not the effect or purpose of the law.  The Israeli government, and those who support it unconditionally, keep the letter of the law (or substitute the word “policy” here) in a death grip, choking off the pursuit of justice.  Using the strictest interpretation of the law, but arriving at an unjust conclusion, is not the just society Torah envisions.

This week’s parasha reminds us that the law is there to create a harmonious, productive and above all, a just society.  We can’t thrive when we are trying to build a just society on top of injustice.  As Martin Luther King Jr said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere.”    The bombs have stopped for now;  now is the time to pursue justice, justice.



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Re’eh: Gates and fences

fenceWhen the other person left, I was the only one left.

To get rid of dust, I dust.

That car could really go, until it started to go.

You know how much I love language and words, and I’ve learned a new one: contranym. It means a word that is its own opposite.  Like oversight – are you watching over something, or letting something slip by?  When you screen something  are you showing it or hiding it?

There is the Hebrew root “a-s-f”, which means to gather or add. Out of context, it doesn’t seem like a contranym, but  I think it’s its own opposite in this week’s parasha, Re’eh.

Tishm’ru la’asot lo tosef alav v’lo tirga m’menu”  Observe the things I commanded with care, neither add to or take away from it.  (Deut 13:1)  So, how is the word tosef, from the root “a-s-f” (add to) both itself and its opposite?

There is a concept in Jewish thought called “making a fence around the Torah”; it comes from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, a compendium of collected wisdom, thoughts about how the world works, advice on ethical and moral behavior, and more.  Chapter 1:1 states, “…And make a safety fence around the Torah.”  We take that to mean that, to avoid even getting near to violating a Torah law, build a fence around that action to keep an accident from happening.  For example, many Torah-observant Jews won’t pick up a pencil on Shabbat, just to lower the chance of writing on Shabbat.  The writing is prohibited, the pencil is the fence.  Or to avoid mixing meat and milk by accident (“you should not cook a lamb in its mother’s milk”, seen as the Torah basis for the law), have separate dishes and silverware in your kitchen.  The separate dishes are the fence.

There is a tendency in more strictly-traditional observance communities that stringent is better, the more fences is better, doing the bare minimum of a particular halacha (law) is somehow not as valued as exceeding that law. The danger here, however, is  more and more fences around something take you further and further away from the essence of the practice.  In the name of “observance”, you can’t even see the original law from that fenced-off distance.  The experience becomes too far-removed, literally.   I would suggest that requiring men and women-only buses, measuring women’s hemlines and inspecting the thickness of a woman’s stockings, or a frenzied, exhausting, panicky “preparation” for Shabbat are fences gone awry.

And here’s where the “adding to a commandment” actually takes away from it.  The tosef has become the tirga.  The adding has become the detracting.

Now for some people, strict observance is a pathway to a deeper spirituality.   I am a fan of meaningful ritual and observance, because I do think that ritual presents us with an opportunity.  Ritual is a vessel into which we can continually pour fresh water.  But the pressure to become more and more strict, more and more “kosher”, build more and more fences to be a “real, authentic  Jew” does the opposite, driving people away or worse yet, isolating people so much from others that learning, understanding, exploration, even experimentation, are locked up behind a fence.   Where is the room for choice?  Where is the room for deciding to do (or not do) something, if the fences have become jails?

Build meaning, not just fences.  And make sure to put in a gate.

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