Saturday, January 23, 2010

Tu Bishvat 5770: Miracles With Leaves

(originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, Jan. 22, 2010)

One day, as [Honi the Circle-Maker] was walking on the road, he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him, “How long will it take this tree to bear fruit?” The man replied, “Seventy years.” He asked, “Are you quite sure you will live another seventy years to eat its fruit?” The man replied, “I myself found fully grown carob trees in the world; as my forebears planted for me, so am I planting for my children.”

(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 23a)

A meqom tefillah, a place of prayer, must always have a window; we should never be swept away with kavvanah that we forget the world beyond the synagogue. From our main sanctuary at Temple Israel, you cannot see through the windows due to the curtains. But in our small chapel, where we hold services at least twice every day, we have views not only of the courtyard and parking lot, but a number of beautiful trees as well, and I often find myself staring out the window during prayerful moments.

The institution of Tu Bishvat is neither particularly old, in Jewish terms, nor extensively detailed. It is actually so obscure that it does not even merit an entry in the standard Conservative work of halakhah, Rabbi Isaac Klein's "A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice." I suppose that is because the day on which all trees turn a year older has no practical import, halakhically speaking or otherwise, for the vast majority of today's Jews.

And yet, as our attention turns increasingly to the effects of global warming, and our possible responses to a now well-documented phenomenon, one must agree that it is striking that we have a day in the Jewish calendar dedicated to remembering the trees. Let's face it: the trees of this world have it rough. Proud and beautiful, trees are essential to the human economy, and as such are used and abused for our own purposes. Yes, we make sure that there are carefully-pruned trees in our yards and parks and nature preserves, but we also manipulate vast numbers of trees for lumber, paper products, pharmaceuticals, furniture, holiday observances, and of course for building new subdivisions and apartment buildings and parking lots on virgin land.

A tree is the product of an enormous investment of energy, a naturally-honed chemical machine that accomplishes truly marvelous things. That trees turn carbon dioxide into oxygen (and tree food) is old news; that the proper symbiosis of trees and oxygen-breathing animals prevents the accumulation of carbon dioxide and hence the heat of the sun in our atmosphere is nothing short of miraculous.

And so, in honor of Tu Bishvat, perhaps the next time your eyes pass over the Modim Anahnu Lakh paragraph in the Amidah (it's in every Amidah, morning, afternoon, and evening of every day), and you spot the line, "ve-al nisekha shebekhol yom imanu," "for Your miracles that daily attend us," think about the trees. Although Judaism provides only one day a year to remember them, the trees should always be numbered among the assortment of wonders that God has provided us. Come join us in the chapel, morning and evening every day, to be reminded of their comforting presence as we pray together.

Intersection of Art and Judaism

(originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, Jan. 22, 2010)

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of going to the Jewish Museum in Manhattan with other members of the Temple Israel Ritual Committee to view an exhibit of modern, artistic takes on Jewish ritual objects. Titled "Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life," it was interesting and occasionally provocative, yielding several good conversations (and one subsequent seudah shelishit discussion) about our relationship to ritual.

After seeing the ritual exhibit, however, most of us wandered down a flight to an exhibit of the work of the 20th-century American Jewish artist Emmanuel Radnitzky, much better known by his alias, Man Ray. He was a modernist who worked in several different media, and although I had been familiar with Man Ray's photography, prior to seeing this exhibit I was unfamiliar with his paintings and sculpture. The collection, cleverly titled "Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention," is broad and eclectic, with enough nudes to make this rabbi blush, or at least pretend not to notice. As one would expect at the Jewish Museum, the exhibit opens with the question of whether Man Ray's Jewish roots are evident in his work; the answer eludes curator and patron alike. In Talmudic language, teiku - the question stands.

The artist was born in Philadelphia to Russian-Jewish immigrants, although he rejected his background, even going so far as to change his name to the indeterminate Man Ray. He led the avant-garde in New York and thereafter in Paris, where he chose to live from 1921. And yet his having discarded his roots and his name were not sufficient to stave off the Nazi threat; in 1940 he fled Paris, just a few days prior to Hitler's arrival. Although he had reinvented himself through artistic expression, "Man Ray" was to the Germans merely Emmanuel Radnitzky.

Such presentations often make me reflect on the unique relationship between Jews, Judaism and Jewish culture. Surely "Judaism," that is the practice of Jewish religious tradition, is a part of Jewish civilization. But as a tribe, our ranks include many who fashioned their lives outside of the framework of Jewish traditions. Marx and Freud, Schoenberg and Spinoza, Einstein and yes, Man Ray, are all Jews who distanced themselves from the religious and cultural aspects of Judaism. And yet they are all unquestionably part of the fabric of modern Jewish life, no less than Maimonides and Martin Buber.

There were no works by Man Ray in the ritual exhibit, but had he been commissioned to create a Jewish ritual item, I'd like to think that he would have crafted a modernist seder plate, perhaps featuring pictures of his lovers under the haroset and horseradish, or a "rayograph" (his self-styled camera-less photography) of the Four Species of Sukkot. But unlike Chagall, Shahn, Bernstein and Brubeck, artists who addressed their Jewishness in their works, Man Ray left us no seder plate. But we should be proud to claim him as one of us.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bereshit 5770 - Two non-conflicting views on Creation

(originally delivered on Oct. 17, 2009)

I have occasionally stated in public that a particular parashah is "my favorite." Well, I realized for the first time this week that I actually have several favorites. Qedoshim, in Vayiqra (Leviticus), is my favorite for interesting and relevant laws (it was also my Bar Mitzvah parashah). Beshallah, in Shemot (Exodus), is also a favorite, because of Shirat Hayam, the song sung by the Israelites after crossing the Sea of Reeds. I am somewhat partial to Vayishlah, because of the story of Jacob's wrestling with the angel, perhaps the most fitting metaphor for Jewish life. But the one that I most love for its commentary possibilities is clearly Bereshit. There is just so much there to talk about- the Big Questions - where did we come from? How did the world begin? And how did our ancestors respond to these questions?

Also particularly appealing about Bereshit is its challenge to the modern, thinking person. Today, most of us do not favor Biblical answers to the Big Questions. Scientific inquiry has long since put to rest any notion that the world was created in six days, 5770 years ago. Nonetheless, the following items about Creation as it is told in the Torah are indeed thought-provoking:
1. That there are, in fact, two creation stories found in the opening chapters of Genesis.
2. There is, in both stories, interplay between God and humans.
3. The themes of love, temptation, loss, and mortality are evident in Creation.
These are human stories, with so much interesting material, and so much wonderful commentary. They continue to inspire us.

As a scientific person and a thinking Jew, I have maintained an ongoing struggle with Bereshit (Genesis/Creation) for most of my life, much in the same way that Jacob wrestles with the aforementioned angel. (This is, of course, what makes us "Yisrael" - that we struggle with God and theological issues.)

An apocryphal story is told of a well-known scientist who once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant turtle." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the turtle standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever", said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"

Now, we cannot see those turtles. But we do have before us two seemingly conflicting stories before us regarding the origin of the universe: that of Bereshit, and the theory that the scientific community has settled upon, that about 13.7 billion years ago, there was a "Big Bang," when all matter expanded outward in a spectacular explosion, the effects of which we can still measure today.

It is indeed tempting to try to resolve the two stories, to say that the first six days of Bereshit actually took 13.7 billion years, or something similar. But when you get down to the details, the scientific record tells a story that simply cannot be harmoniously reconciled with the first chapter of the Torah.

That does not say, however, that we must remove God from the picture.

When I was in graduate school in chemical engineering at Texas A&M University, which is truly the buckle of the Bible belt, I heard a lecture by a professor of mechanical engineering that was his “proof” of the existence of God. God is evident, said this professor, in the perfection of all of the physical constants of nature. For example, that water is most dense at a point above freezing, allowing sea creatures to have survived in otherwise frozen waters, and Planck's constant in quantum physics, the gravitational constant, and the speed of light – that all of these values are so precise, that they had to be exactly what they were, or life would never have appeared on Earth – this is the primary evidence of God's hand in nature.

Now this man was, like many professors at A&M, a deeply religious Christian, and I presume a reasonably objective scientist as well. His goal, of course, was reconciliation. However, I don't think that this prof's idea adequately responds to the question of Creation. Furthermore, I feel strongly that there is no need to reconcile science and the Torah. I will come back to this in a few minutes.

There is, however, a similar strain of Jewish thought that emerges in the medieval period, albeit not in response to the challenge of science. A certain medieval philosophy favored by some Jewish thinkers, known as Neo-Platonism, argued that our perceived perfection of the universe pointed to perfection of God, and, by contrast, IMperfection of humans. This philosophy appealed, in particular, to the courtier-rabbis of the Golden Age of Spain, in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, and came out in their works, like, for example, in a poem by Isaac Ibn Ghiyyat, an extended tribute to the lights in the sky, created on the 4th day of Creation. It contains the repeated refrain, "Ata asita et hashamayim." “You [God] created the Heavens.”

Here is an excerpt in translation, featuring the seven planets known in the 11th century CE:

"You made the glory of the seven moving stars in contrast to the seven spheres
Created before them, and fixed the stars in the spheres
On the fourth day, you hewed them from the light You created on the first day
On the day on which God created the earth and heaven.
You created the heavens."

There are 21 other stanzas about the various lights in the sky. Says Ibn Ghiyyat, the glory of Creation is reflected in heavenly perfection. Creation is perfect; the heavens are perfect; God is perfect. This is the doctrine of Neo-Platonism. And our goal as humans is to strive to achieve heavenly perfection, to ultimately return from the imperfect world of the flesh to rejoin the perfection of the heavenly God.

Now Neo-Platonism was not originally "Jewish"; rabbis and Jewish philosophers to whom NP appealed made it work with their Judaism. This is a good example that demonstrates that there has, historically, always been room in Judaism for outside ideas: philosophy, art, music, etc. As Conservative Jews, we are certainly open to this.

Likewise, our response to science is not to reject it or ignore it. If that were the case, I would have to go daven somewhere else. On the contrary, the principles of scientific inquiry, in some ways, produced the Conservative Movement. The 19th-c. German idea called "Die Wissenschaft des Judentums" – literally, the science of Judaism – came to study our holy literature and traditions from the perspective that Judaism could be taught and studied critically, using the methods of science.

However, I'd like to advocate for NOT trying to resolve science and the Torah in general, or the Big Bang Theory and Creation in particular, because really, they cannot be adequately resolved. Science tells us (for example) that Creation could NOT have happened 6,000 years ago, in six days. The Torah does.

I cannot deny science. Nor can I deny Judaism. Or, for that matter, God.

We could play games of trying to rectify one with the other, like the professor of mechanical engineering, but this exercise holds the promise of only limited success; ultimately, religious arguments boil down to faith. No matter how elaborate the proof, faith will always be the critical step. But rather, a higher goal is to understand that the authenticity of our religious tradition is not invalidated by scientific evidence that seems to contradict it.

As Orthodox rabbi Natan Slifkin writes, in his book entitled The Challenge of Creation,

“To some, the idea that “God makes the trees grow” has been rendered redundant by the idea that “biological processes, based on chemical and physical laws, make the trees grow.” But the truth is that in formulating scientific explanations for things, we have not removed God from the picture; instead, we have discovered a new picture for Him to have drawn.”

My solution: we should take both stories for what they are - different sets of lenses, or myths, arrived at through different paths. And I use the word “myth” not in its typical meaning of falsehood, but rather the way that Rabbi Neil Gillman of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s pre-eminent philosopher, uses it: that is, a myth is something that explains the information that we take in and helps us make sense of our world.

Thus we have before us in Creation two sets of myths.

One set is our Jewish national story, the Torah. It may not be factually, historically accurate, but it is still our story.

The other set is the collected body of knowledge acquired through scientific inquiry. It is a different story, a different set of myths. It redraws somewhat the lines of Creation and the functioning of the universe, as Rabbi Slifkin suggests. But it does not contradict God’s role in our lives.

God is eternal. So are the laws of physics. And we continue to discover more about each individually; they need not comment on each other.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Yom Kippur 5770 - The Last Bastion of the Personal

(originally delivered on Sept. 28, 2009)

I remember reading a few years back about some clever wag's technique for dealing with telemarketers. When the offending party would call, this joker would say something like, "It's against my religion to speak on the phone." The telemarketer says, "But sir, aren't you speaking on the phone right now?" And our hero replies, "My God! Look what you've done!" and slams the phone down.

We are all familiar with these intrusions into our lives. They come at us from all directions: of course from the telephone, from our mobile devices, which get ever more complicated and invasive; every possible nook and cranny of our daily existence that might have been free is taken up by somebody else's sponsored message, aimed at you individually, but cultivated to appeal to millions of people, just like you.

Our lives are in danger of becoming depersonalized by a system that is designed to cast the widest possible net and handle as many transactions as possible in as little time as possible. How did this happen? I am pretty sure that my grandparents did not face this. They shopped in small, locally-owned businesses. All of their immediate relatives lived close by, so if they wanted to say hello, they merely dropped in. They did not have cable bills or credit cards. Nobody called them at home during the dinner hour to bother them about magazine subscriptions. If they needed to speak to somebody in "customer service," the manager or shop owner came out to speak with them personally. They did not get connected to an "associate" in Mumbai, or get stonewalled in trying to speak to someone with more authority.

To return for a moment to the telemarketing example, that anybody has to come up with clever ruses to get rid of telemarketers is ridiculous and truly unfortunate. That we live in a society in which it is apparently OK to be so rude to others (rude for them to bring their business into our living rooms uninvited, and rude for us to mistreat them in all the various ways that we do), this is truly heartbreaking.

Sometimes it seems that the world has decided that I am just an assemblage of "marketing metrics" from which my purchasing habits are to be extrapolated. A little information about me says everything: that I drive a hybrid car, say, implies that I will be interested in buying organic milk. The software of my email provider knows enough about me to pick out advertisements that attract my attention; the algorithms of online booksellers make recommendations to me all the time, some of which are disturbingly accurate.

Am I just a formula? Are we all mere function machines whose behavioral patterns are entirely predictable?

Well, I hope that is not the case. But here, within this building, nobody is reduced to such anonymity. Each of us is a person with actual thoughts and feelings. A person who loves and hates, who is sometimes righteous and sometimes not, who is occasionally brilliant and talented but also sometimes stubborn or irritable. A person who can feel the presence of another, or the presence of God. A person who feels joy and contentment, sorrow and loss. As one of your rabbis, I know this well from my daily work in and out of this building.

And this is essentially what a synagogue is for. This is why we come to this place - to be close with one another, and of course to be close to the Divine. Houses of worship are among the last bastions of the personal in American society. This is a place to come where you can have real contact with real humans. And not just humans, real Jews. These people that are sitting around you right now, some of whom you do not know, they are real. (If you have not introduced yourself, you should do so. But please wait 'til after the sermon.)

We all contribute individually and personally in creating this community. One Hasidic tale puts it this way:

"The myriads of letters in the Torah stand for the myriads of souls in Israel. If one single letter is left out of the Torah, it becomes unfit for use; if one single soul is left out of the union of Israel, the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) will not rest upon it. Like the letters, so the souls must unite and form a union."

For two millennia, the synagogue has been the gathering place for Jews; it is the place where the letters of the Torah are assembled into their final product. This is the place where we stand together, united as a people. It is the modern miqdash, the holy place wherein the shekhinah (DP) resides.

In some ways, we are far more connected to each other than we have ever been. We have so many more means of contact than people did even 25 years ago. Email, cell phones, text messaging, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, and so forth. This is a wonderful thing, as it has made our world much smaller. I can call my son now in Israel for less than 2 cents/minute, something that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. But all of these methods of communication are deceptive - no form of electronics can (at least for now) duplicate the experience of speaking with somebody face-to-face, of registering their body language and facial expressions, the sights and sounds and scents that accompany human speech. We are at once closer to each other, and yet farther. These devices might make it possible to (I'm going to date myself here) "reach out and touch someone," but have they perhaps enabled us to live further away from one another by creating an illusion of closeness?

Well, I have some good news. Spending quality time with our family and friends, will, I hope, never go out of style. And then, there's the synagogue.

Temple Israel is not a franchise operation, one of a chain of identical "Temples Israel" all over the country. We are unique; a congregation is, more or less, a function of the collective personalities of its members and paid professionals. We create this place ourselves, rather than adhere to strict guidelines distributed by some corporate office.

Do you know that major, international fast-food chains, those masters of the impersonal meal, employ professional taste-testers that fly all over the world to visit all of their outlets? They taste the fries to make sure that they all taste alike. They taste the shakes, the burgers, etc. (BTW, Don't eat fast food - it's bad for you, bad for the environment and usually not kosher.)

TI belongs to the Conservative movement. But believe me, there is a wide range of synagogues in the Conservative Movement, and each is its own entity, with its own style and customs and flavor. We have some common features (siddurim, say, or no mehitzah), but there is no taste-tester; this congregation is unique, because all of US are unique.

And to be sure, TI is quite large, and therein lies one of its greatest challenges. So large, in fact, that it violates the Law of 150 that Malcolm Gladwell cites in his book, "The Tipping Point" - that organizations of more than 150 individuals can no longer function in a personal way, such that everybody knows each other. Many of you know that TI's automated dialer is usually used for announcements when a member passes away; I suspect that this place would feel somewhat more tightly-knit if we each personally knew the one about whom the dialer is calling.

But TI does not behave like a large, impersonal corporation. We are people - the clergy, the lay leadership, the staff - and it is our constant struggle to reach out to all 950 families of this congregation, to get to know you and have meaningful contact. And believe me, this is a quintessentially human institution; our focus is not the bottom line, but establishing Jewish connections.

I have asked this question before in this space: Why are we here in TI on YK? It is a question that I think must be continually asked and answered.

There is a standard joke about Jews and synagogues, one that (at least according to last weekend's New York Times Magazine, in the great article about prayer's resurgence) seems to have been penned by Jewish humorist Harry Golden. Golden once asked his father, an avowed atheist, why he went to Shabbat services every week. His father replied that his friend Garfinkle goes to synagogue to talk to God, but that he goes to synagogue to talk to Garfinkle.

We read in Pirqei Avot, the sole tractate of the Mishnah devoted to rabbinic wisdom rather than items of Jewish law, "Hillel omer: Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur" Hillel taught, do not withdraw from the community. Isolation is strongly discouraged in Jewish tradition. We are social animals, and this is a communal tradition. Why do we require a minyan of 10 people for a prayer service? Why do we require a minyan at a wedding? Maybe it is because that is what God wants, but perhaps moreso it is because this is desirable for people. Unlike other religious traditions that occasionally emphasize isolation, you can not be Jewish alone.

Now I know that there are many reasons to come to synagogue, some of which I solicited from you on RH/YK last year, and the opportunity to commune with our friends and fellow Jews ranks high on the list of important reasons to be here; in fact, I think that it is either first or second.

Our increased isolation, perhaps due to our geographical dispersion and maybe aided and abetted by electronic devices, makes person-to-person contact that much more valuable and necessary. We need to see and touch and communicate with others, and this is a place where we are all welcome and encouraged to do that. But just as we need this kind of contact, qal vahomer, all the moreso, do we need contact with God. And although your BlackBerry might help you stay in touch with people, I think it might be less effective with the latter.

That is what a synagogue is for, and that is why we are here. Yes, for the development of social capital, that is to say, those everyday bonds that connect us to each other. Rubbing elbows at qiddush. Seeing friends, exchanging bits of news, arguing about the rabbi's sermon (I should be so lucky!) and so forth. But really, this building has a higher purpose, one that even Harry Golden's father was engaged in even though he thought it was just his religious buddy Garfinkle. This building is for Avodah Shebalev, for the service of the heart, also known as tefillah. And that is something we do together, in public, as one.

The liturgy and rituals of the HH are particularly rich with imagery that suggests that this is a time that, in particular, we come together for a holy purpose. In every single Amidah that is recited on RH and YK (for the record, a total of 13 during all 3 days of RH and YK), we say, "Ve-ye-asu kulam agudah ahat - let all creatures be united wholeheartedly to carry out Your will." And that's what we are doing here today.

More than that, however, all of the penitential prayers are written in first person plural: "We are guilty, we have cheated, we have stolen,..." and "For the sin that we have sinned against you through causeless hatred,..." and "Our Father our King, we have sinned before you." We are not Catholics, who confess their sins alone, in the dark. We do it in broad daylight, together. We share this deeply personal ritual, here in this building on this day. Introspection may be carried out in private, but hey, we're Jewish! We do it all at the same time, in public.

And yet, some might see a contradiction here. On the one hand, I am arguing that the synagogue experience is personal, but on the other, the rituals of this day (and the rest of the Jewish calendar) are communal. But like the letters of the Torah, the communal experience is dependent upon each individual. Anonymity, even in a communal context, is not consistent with Judaism.

There are only two things that I have discovered that make people in NYC turn heads and pay attention to you as you walk down the street. One is a very cute baby. The other is a polished antelope horn shofar. I had the opportunity this week to take my shofar into Manhattan last Wednesday, turning heads and exchanging remarks with strangers on the subway and the street, as I went to a demonstration near the UN against the speech of Iranian president (elected or otherwise) Ahmadinejad. I and about 70 other rabbis from the NYBR stopped traffic on 1st Ave, sang Oseh Shalom, and sounded a teqiah gedolah.

On the way back, I passed through GCS, and was tempted to sound the shofar in the middle of the Main Concourse. I did not, perhaps for fear of being thought a lunatic. But I wonder if the sound of that curious, ancient instrument would have made an impact on all the people rushing by, just like it does when we sound it here. And although I would like to think that those old-world notes would have pricked up a few ears and lifted a few spirits, my suspicion is that it would probably not have done so. In this building, the shofar has an emotional resonance, a holy timbre that cannot be reproduced elsewhere. Here, it is personal. In Grand Central Station, it would have simply been out of place.

The connections that we make here with God are direct and unfiltered, and these we also do together. When our voices rise as one in the recitation of the Shema, or the Qedusha, or any of the holy words of our tefillah, or when we hear the Shofar sounded, we share in the collective communication with the Divine.

And yet, in those moments of the qol demamah daqah, the still, small voice that is heard (or perhaps merely felt) after the Shofar blasts have been completed, we also find our own intimate, individual connection to the God we seek, even as we sit here among hundreds of people. I hope that many of us feel the silent presence that Martin Buber dubbed the Unconditional, the unnamed "Thou" that transforms us directly, individually, without any outside intervention or assistance. Our relationship with God is the most intensely, deeply personal relationship that there is. That is why Buber (in English translation from the original German) uses the archaic 2nd-person subject "Thou," the equivalent of the not-quite-so archaic German "Du" indicating the informal "you," the one used in many langauges for those close to us. God is an informal you, because we approach God without conditions. Says Buber:

"The Thou meets me. But I step into direct relation with it. Hence the relation means being chosen and choosing..."

The Thou is always there for us, just like the still, small voice. However, one way that we "step into the direct relation" with Buber's Unconditional is, I think, to step into the synagogue. I am not sure if Buber would agree with me, but it is here that we are open to God more than we are anywhere else. Here we find our personal connections to the Divine. Here the Thou finds us as we choose to seek the Thou.

There are times when we seek God together, as a community, as the individual letters in the Torah form a whole. And there are times when we seek God by ourselves, directly, unconditionally; and both of these types of seeking happen here. The Hasidic story that I mentioned before continues, referring to a specific law that applies to the way a Torah is written:

"But why is it forbidden for one letter in the Torah to touch its neighbor? Because every soul of Israel must have hours when it is alone with its Maker."

Although we pray together, confess together, bend our knees and bow together, we also have the space within these services to approach God individually, in the very personal way, the non-digital, human way that each of us has.

In this weekend's NYT, there was a front-page article about one of the last seltzer-delivery men in NY. Did anybody else read it? There are plenty of people out there that insist on having seltzer personally delivered in the old, heavy glass bottles, paying handsomely for it, because they insist that the quality of the seltzer is much better than what one can buy in a store or make at home. I will admit to being a heavy consumer of seltzer, and I am not convinced that the quality is better. However, it surely must feel much more satisfying to know and trust the guy that delivers it, and that personal interaction coupled with the literally and figuratively hefty, non-mass-produced bottles enhances the seltzer in ways that our grandparents would never have considered, because they never had it any other way.

Living in the 21st century will increasingly be a quest for the personal, and I hope that Jews will continue to find it here; consider this a challenge for this New Year, 5770. But perhaps we can take the model of the synagogue outside this building. I suggest that we all seek out the personal in the other spheres of our lives, and here are some examples. Try joining a CSA or shopping at farmer's markets for locally-grown produce - the opportunity to interact with the people who grow your food, and sharing personal moments with others involved with community-supported agriculture is invaluable; patronize mom-and-pop shops, places which are rapidly being pushed out of business by Big Box Mart; look for the personal interactions that can only occur when you walk or take public transit rather than drive. Carry a shofar with you if you must, even if it is just for show. These things will all make the world more human.

Help put a stop to the creeping depersonalization of our lives. Look for those personal opportunities, and grab 'em. And keep coming back to Temple Israel for real communication, human and Divine.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Eqev 5769 - And you shall eat, be satisfied, and bless

(originally delivered on Aug. 8, 2009)

Almost two weeks ago I landed in Israel for a brief visit. As often as I go, it's always exciting for me to come back to Israel. I got off the plane smiling, ordered my first kafe hafukh with a smile, (upside-down coffee - latte with a whole lot of milk foam on top; it was the first of many during my trip). I rented my car with a smile and drove off in the direction of Tel Aviv beaming. A song by the late singer-songwriter Meir Ariel, Israel's Bob Dylan, came on Galgalatz, followed by Matisyahu, an American import:

I give myself to you now from the essence of my being
And I sing to my God, songs of love and healing

While I was groovin' to this, Hwy 1 began to fill up with the ever-present Israeli traffic, but I continued to smile, thinking, I'm so glad to be home, in the Promised Land, the land of the Seven Species denoted in today's parashah. Coffee is, perhaps surprisingly to many secular Israelis, not included in the Torah's list of the seven species, as it is exceedingly common throughout the Israeli landscape. Indeed, even the humblest of gas stations has a fine Italian coffee machine.

The night before I left, Judy and I took advantage of the fact that my mother was in town to go out for dinner and a movie; it had been quite some time since we had done that, and since Zev is at this point quite portable, we packed him into the car and off we went; big sister Hannah stayed with mom.

The film we saw was a documentary called Food, Inc. We love documentaries, and have seen a number of good ones in the last few years. A good documentary should challenge you to think differently about something, and this one succeeds in making one consider, and perhaps reconsider your food. I have been doing that for the last two weeks. And furthermore, reconsidering your food is a commandment found in the parashah that we read this morning, Parashat Eqev. So any movie that encourages you to perform mitzvot is, in my book, worth seeing.

But this film is more than that. Eric Schlosser, the producer, is perhaps the Upton Sinclair of today. Schlosser and Michael Pollan, the food writer whom I have mentioned in this space before (and wrote the article in last week's Times mag), put together a powerful analysis of the American food industry. Sinclair's 1906 novel, The Jungle, exposed the evils of the meat-packing industry of the time, and was partly responsible for the groundswell of public support for the Pure Food and Drug act of the same year.

Well, my friends, that was a century ago, and the time has come to look closely once again at what we eat. Now, I am not speaking specifically about the kosher food industry, which is not addressed in this film. But certain recent events in the kosher meat biz are symptoms of a couple of larger problems in American agriculture at large, and those are these:

1. Little oversight.
- FDA does not have the resources to check the safety of our food regularly and effectively
2. Maximized efficiency at the expense of the safety of the food
- the system moves so quickly and has been so highly refined that contamination spreads rapidly
- well-publicized cases in recent years, particularly E. coli infections, some resulting in death
3. Focus on commodity crops (corn and soybeans) rather than diversity
- not good for soil
- not like the traditional farm, in which nutrients pass from plants to animals and back again - symbiosis
4. Control by a handful of large corporations
- these guys own the markets - whatever they want, they get
- the government regulators overseeing them are generally former execs from the big agribusiness companies

I do not have enough time to explain all of these things right now, but I highly recommend this film. It concludes with a couple of recommendations, the last of which particularly caught my eye:

"If you say grace, ask for food that will keep us and the planet healthy; you can change the world with every bite." Hold that for a second.

Jewish life is inextricably linked to food; the patterns of our worship, our holiday observances, our lifecycle events all include meals, and the rituals that attend them. Mention virtually any holiday, and a particular food comes to mind. Even our fast days are bookended by meals. It is almost a joke, right? The Italian mother says to her children, if you don't eat your vegetables, I'll kill ya! The Jewish mother says, if you don't eat your vegetables, I'll die! Perhaps some of us had mothers like that.

So back to the aforementioned mitzvah: you can find it on p. 1041 of your humash (Etz Hayim), verse 10:

Ve-akhalta vesavata uverakhta et adonai elohekha al ha-aretz hatovah asher natan lakh

You shall eat, be satisfied, and give thanks to the Lord your God for the good earth that He gave you.

If you have recently recited Birkat Hamazon, you have chanted this line. The rabbis understood this to be the source of the commandment for Birkat Hamazon: Eat, be satisfied, and bless! Right there in black and white.

But it is not just about reciting a few lines. It's tefillah, prayer, and that requires kavvanah, intention.

So what should your kavvanah be, when you recite Birkat Hamazon? It is the following, and, like on Jeopardy, phrased in the form of questions:

1. Where did your food come from? Who planted it and fertilized it? Who harvested it? Who raised the animals? Who slaughtered them?

But all the moreso:

2. Who provided the sun, the rain, the temperate climate? Who gave us the seed, the land, the ability to sow and reap?

3. To whom does all of this belong?

Now, I would not go so far as to call myself a farmer, but I did grow up in a rural part of Massachusetts. We were not a suburb or even an exurb. We were just a small town, far from any city. My father and I spent many happy summer hours out in the garden, planting, weeding, composting, harvesting, and so forth. That contact with the land has never left me, and every time I visit Israel in particular, I remember that God's promise to us is as much about the soil itself as it is about the ancient ruins of Jerusalem or the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv.

Returning for a moment to the verse: The mitzvah is apparently to eat your fill and to bless. But note that the commandment to bless includes the following bit about land: uverakhta et adonai elohekha al ha-aretz hatovah asher natan lakh - and give thanks to the the Lord your God for the good land that He has given you. And so, when we saw that suggestion at the end of Food, Inc. to connect Grace and land, Judy's initial reaction was, "Well, Eric Schlosser (the producer) is Jewish." And that may in fact be true, and maybe he knows about birkat hamazon and this verse.

Or maybe he does not. But the interesting thing is that the Torah is quite progressive on this issue, in an ancient way. Our ancestors were in touch with the land; they lived on it and from it. They knew the condition of the soil year-round. When it did not rain, they keenly felt it (those of you that are in my Mishnah class, in which we are studying very old Jewish rituals for prompting rain in its time, know that our ancestors would fast if it did not rain). For the ancient Israelites, and for the rabbis as well, food and land were intimately connected.

For us today, that is no longer really true. In any grocery store, you can buy almost any produce item year-round. We are almost completely dissociated from the land, the climate, and virtually all of the elements that bring food to our table. Rain or no rain, you can always buy good strawberries. In some ways, that makes it even harder for us modern, non-agricultural people to understand Judaism, and especially when trying to relate to this middle section of Deuteronomy, where so many of the mitzvot have to do with the land.

While I was in Israel last week, I stayed mostly in the Tel Aviv area. One day I drove up north, and on the way passed many, many agricultural settlements. Urban Israelis have a lifestyle that echoes that of urban Americans in many ways; but they are also not too far removed from the food that they eat. Many of them have relatives who still live on kibbutzim and moshavim, the traditional agricultural settlements. They see the fruit orchards, the fish farms, the dairy cows grazing as they drive about the countryside, and only an hour away from Tel Aviv one can be in the middle of all of that. So even in the modern land of the ancient Seven Species, food and earth are not so disconnected.

But unless we here in the States grow our own food, or belong to a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) program like Judy and I do, we eat food that comes from far away, and that was produced under conditions that are probably vastly different from the ones that you might witness in Israel today. And furthermore, as any Israeli who has spent time here will tell you, fruits and vegetables in America are inferior in taste to those available in Israel. (I can't speak for the meat.)

To fulfill this mitzvah properly, the mitzvah of eating, being, satisfied, and blessing for the land that God gave us, we must not only appreciate and acknowledge God's role in bringing it to the table, but we must further respect the land, and all the other elements of the process.

If you want more information about how to join a CSA, ask me at qiddush, or send me an email or call me during the week. If you want to be shocked, disappointed, and better aware of what you eat, see Food, Inc. And if you want to put the Divine back into your diet, start a garden and a compost pile, and don't forget to say birkat hamazon.

Re-eh 5769 - Crazy land - Is this what God intended?

(originally delivered on August 15, 2009)

Some of you know that I just returned from Israel a week and a half ago, and will be going back for a few more days this coming week. I go there at least twice a year (in fact, 2009 will be a record for me- four trips), and I like to think of myself as being as connected to Israel as any American can be.

Israel is for me a nation of paradoxes. On the one hand, I feel a strong connection to it theologically, the kind of divinely-inspired attachment that simply jumps off of the pages of the humash when we read about the land in the Torah. But on the other hand, my connections to Israel are modern and secular: my family ties there, my love of the culture and the people and the modern revival of the Hebrew language, my admiration for the successes of the modern state in many fields, and my neverending appreciation for the complex, textured fabric of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious Israeli society.

I am very much attached to the notion of the Jewish state's having perhaps fulfilled the vision of Ezekiel, when the dry bones knitted themselves together; but at the same time I am disheartened by the infighting that naturally occurs when Jews gather.

I am drawn to the land itself, and yet anxious about how that land will be parceled out in the future to accommodate the nascent reality of a Palestinian state.

I lived there long enough to appreciate the high points of Israeli culture: music, dance, visual arts, academics, and yet often cringe at the crass reality of Israeli television, consumerism, and of course, politics.

I am also continuously struck by the ever-lessening tension between the tradition of historical Zionism vs. today's mild nationalism which sees making aliyah to NY as the highest sabra ideal.

I could go on. Israel is a complicated place: beautiful, moving, seductive, even. But also fraught. The internal politics are always exceedingly complex and fragile because of the coalition system and the need for any coalition to include the religious parties. Meanwhile, the precariousness of Israel's relations with her neighbors never fails to inspire supporters and critics, journalists, authors, and commentators of all stripes.

Albert Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel when it was founded. Einstein declined, claiming that he had no time to take on such a task, although that was a weak excuse. He was not a religious man, but he was quite prescient when he stated the following in a 1938 speech entitled "Our Debt to Zionism".

He said: "My awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power, no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain—especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks, against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish state. ... If external necessity should after all compel us to assume this burden, let us bear it with tact and patience."

Tact and patience have, since 1938, been in short supply between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Anyone who has lived there will tell you that even without the political complexities of the greater region, Israel is an impatient place. But recent events have inflamed internal tensions, or at least it seems that way from my perspective as an outsider who is sensitive to the ebb and flow of Israeli life.

1. There is a brand new outdoor mall adjacent to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City, a beautiful structure that honors the traditional architecture of Jlem and also creates a lively new space with lovely cafes with great views, in addition to all the regular Israeli chain stores.

Below the mall is a new indoor parking lot with hundreds of spaces, something which the Jlem municipality desperately needs. Until this summer, the parking lot had been closed on Shabbat, but Jlem's new mayor, Nir Barkat, a secular Jew and entrepreneur, lobbied to have it opened, due to the great need for parking. This infuriated the Haredi population of Jlem, and so there have been violent protests against it every Friday evening since the beginning of July, as Haredim of all stripes have surged into the streets of the Holy City to express their outrage of what they perceive to be a violation of the sanctity of Shabbat in the Holy City.

2. In another incident that provoked violent street protests, a Haredi woman who belongs to one of the far-right, anti-Zionist groups within the Haredi community was found to be apparently deliberately starving her 3-yr-old, who was in Hadassah hospital and at the time of the incident weighed 15 pounds. A hidden camera showed the mother repeatedly removing the feeding tube from her son's mouth. The mother was arrested and diagnosed with Munchausen-by-proxy syndrome, a curiously-named psychological condition that causes women to fabricate or induce symptoms in their children to get medical attention.

A rabbi from the woman's sect declared this incident a modern blood libel, and the Haredi street erupted in protest. Street protests turned violent, and hordes of marauding haredim destroyed the state welfare and social services office in the Meah Shearim neighborhood, storming in and smashing computers and equipment, and then setting the building on fire.

3. The Israeli media was ablaze a couple of weeks ago with another sensational story. At a parking garage in Jlem, a young, promising rabbinical student who is also the son of the Chief Sephardic rabbi of Hadera, tried to get out of the garage without paying. The attendant, a 30-year-old Ethiopian Israeli woman, stood in front of the car to prevent him from leaving, whereupon, he accelerated into her, carried her on the hood of the car for a ways, and dumped her on a sidewalk. The incident was captured by a security camera, and you can see it yourself online.

To make matters worse, the Jerusalem District judge, after speaking with the young man's father, gave him effectively a slap on the wrist, perhaps because the young man was slated to become a "dayyan," a rabbinic judge, and a criminal record would have prevented this. After extensive public outrage, the judge's ruling was overturned by a higher court, and the judge himself was censured, such that he will no longer be considered for a position on the Israeli Supreme Court.

And one more small item that hit the news in Israel - the New Jersey corruption scandal that implicated five rabbis from the insular Syrian community in America; their money laundering and kidney trafficking connected them with the Promised Land.

What's a Zionist rabbi like me to do?

Despite all of these items, the reality on the ground is not what it might seem. On my last night in Israel, I attended an annual art festival in Jerusalem that saw the best turnout in many years. A friend of mine, an Illinois native turned Jerusalemite, told me that since the security situation has improved dramatically due to the building of the separation fence, Jerusalem's streets are alive once again.

As Marcus pointed out earlier, we read in today's parashah about blessings and curses attached to our heritage of the Land of Israel. Now, of course, these are premised on whether or not we fulfill the commandments given by God. I am not going to get into a theological discussion right now about whether or not God really works this way; that discussion is for another forum. In a couple of weeks, in Parashat Ki Tavo, we will read in detail the Torah's list of these blessings and curses. However, I'd like to propose a modern take on this, given the current state of the Jewish state (with apologies to God for rewriting the Torah):

God: If you behave well, like the true inheritors of the Torah,

This land shall be a gathering place to which Jews spread all over the world shall return.

You shall eat the finest falafel the New Israeli Shekel can buy. Plus, you shall have the most fantastic selection of eating establishments in your major cities, restaurants that rival the haute cuisine found in Europe or America. Some of these restaurants will even be kosher!

You shall build fantastic infrastructure: highways that are sometimes not clogged with traffic, utilities that provide all the comforts of the most modern nations. You shall provide free wireless internet access for the benefit of Conservative rabbis who are visiting from overseas.

You shall be tremendously successful in high-tech enterprises, medical devices, international trade, and so forth. You shall assemble world-class universities, wherein students from all over the world will come to learn.

You shall build wonderful tourist infrastructure, whereby Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Baha'i will come from all over the world to see the holy sites of the ancient world, and pay handsomely to stay in the finest hotels and visit the most exciting tourist traps.

You shall thrive as a nation economically, such that Israel shall be a major force in international trade.

Most importantly, you shall have peace.

But if you are outwardly pious and yet continue to do nefarious things on the sly or even on video:

You shall be surrounded by hostile nations with whom you shall be eternally at war.

You shall elect representatives who are always caught up in one kind of of scandal or another: tax evasion, bribery, corruption, making unwanted advances on female staff, and so forth.

You shall be divided on all kinds of political issues: social, economic, foreign relations, etc. Your political system will, as a result, will be so unstable that virtually every government will fall before the end of its official term.

You shall argue with each other over religious issues; who has control over "who is a Jew," for example, and who controls issues of marriage and divorce and death. Your miraculous infrastructure will serve as flashpoints for interior disputes.

You shall absorb immigrants from all over the world, Jewish and non-Jewish (and questionably so), who will be attracted to the thriving economy, but will also contribute to a variety of social ills.

Your negotiations over issues of boundaries and security will always be problematic, and any such disputes will drain on your economy and damage your image abroad.

The Sfat Emet, also known as Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the Gerer hasidic rabbi (and grandfather of our Rabbi Isaac) who lived in Poland in the late 19th and early 20th c., asks why Moses devotes so much of the book of Deuteronomy warning the Israelites about future misdeeds. After all, the perpetrators of many of the sins that he warns about had already died in the Desert. The Sefat Emet answers that it is the task of each generation to correct the failings of preceding generations and that requires knowing those failings.

Well, my friends, the HH are just a month away, and we should be asking ourselves some difficult questions about current Jewish realities. We have much to atone for. Let's hope that 5770 is a better year for the Jewish state and the Jewish world.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Vayyehi 5770 - The Open Book Model

Five weeks ago, I delivered the first part of this sermon. I realize that some of you may not have been there on that day, so here is a brief encapsulation of what I said.

American Jewry continues to move away from communal identification. As Jews spend less of their time doing traditional Jewish activities, institutional affiliation is dwindling. The result for most American Jews is an even lesser sense of community, while institutions look to new models to inspire and lead. Some of these new efforts, I lamented, may not produce future generations of Jewishly-knowledgeable, strongly-identified Jews.

I had remarked at the time that I had done a terrible thing – in 12 minutes, I delivered lots of bad news, and did not offer any solutions, any hints of light in an otherwise gloomy outlook. As a sort of ad hoc band-aid, I came up with what seemed at the time to be an oh-so-clever idea – to put off the upshot for another month, thus allowing me time to come up with some solutions to all of American Jewry’s complex issues. Well, ladies and gentlemen, that’s exactly what I am going to do right now. Stand back! Do not try this at home.

Let me preface this by reminding us all that people identify with the Jewish community or seek a rabbi or come to the synagogue for a variety of different reasons, like educating their children Jewishly or lifecycle events or Shabbat services or saying mourner’s kaddish. But my primary goal as a rabbi is to get Jews more in touch with Judaism, to teach the words of the Torah and the rabbinic sages to as many people as possible, and to inspire them to, in turn, live holier lives, such that they are role models and teachers for their children and grandchildren. And it is this forum, this congregation, that allows me to do that.

Now this is not so easy. As is obvious to all of us, I do not see most of our congregants very often. (There is nothing wrong with that, by the way. I do not judge anybody for their choices.) But this contemporary reality points to the fact that we need a new model. We need a new way to reach most American Jews, because the traditional routes are no longer doing that.

As I have said many times in this space, the days when Jews came to synagogue just because it was the Jewish thing to do, or even simply joined synagogues for the purposes of identifying with the Jewish community, are over. Today, the focus of young Jews is almost entirely personal. If they pursue their Jewish heritage at all, it is through independent means, not connected to institutions.

Very few, for example, are joining synagogues. And fewer still attend services, even if they have the time in their schedule.

I read about a recent study of American Jews in their 20s and 30s. Among other things, the survey participant were asked was to choose items from a list of basic Jewish activities and concepts, those that were, to them, an important part of being Jewish. Examples: (from: "Grande Soy Vanilla Latte with Cinnamon, No Foam..." Jewish Identity and Community in a Time of Unlimited Choices)

What It Means to Be Jewish

A Lot
A Lot / Some

Remembering the Holocaust


Making the world a better place


Leading an ethical and moral life


Understanding Jewish history


Learning about Jewish culture


Caring about Israel


Feeling part of the Jewish people


Donating money to help those less fortunate


Believing in God


Dietary restrictions, such as avoiding pork, mixing milk and meat, or keeping Kosher


Having Jewish friends


Attending synagogue


"For you personally, how much does being Jewish involve each of the following?Would you say a lot, some, a little, or none at all?" (OMG!, May 2005)

What this study tells us is that what most of us perceive to be the primary entry point for Temple Israel, the most attended activity of the week, that is, this Shabbat morning service, is the least important symbol for what it means to be Jewish for young Jews. And furthermore, that we at Temple Israel are operating on an outdated model; this congregation functions according to the model of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when Jewish immigrants and their children were moving to the suburbs in huge numbers. That time and place was half a century ago, and much has changed in the way that American Jews relate to the world and consequently their Judaism.

The people that come to services regularly on Shabbat are roughly the same ones that come to adult-ed classes, Selihot services, Men’s club meetings, special programs, the Dinner Dance, and so forth. Most of my work as a rabbi, let’s say, 85% of my time, is devoted to serving 15% of this congregation. And the other 85% of our members are served only when they seek me out for lifecycle events like weddings and funerals. And this is true not just for the clergy, but for the office staff as well.

What this suggests is that we at Temple Israel are distributing our resources the wrong way. And the reason for this is that we are operating according to this model: the Club Model.

As you can see, what characterizes this model is the big, thick wall in the middle. This is the barrier to membership. This is not a financial barrier; many of our paid members are outside this wall. Rather, this is a participation barrier. Those on the inside are our active 15% - they come to all our events, because they have the desire and the knowledge and the personal motivations to do so. Let's face it - this is a very high barrier – services are in a foreign language and dreadfully long (including an impenetrable sermon); people on the inside all know each other and know the clergy and staff personally; for those on the outside, the idea of enriching oneself Jewishly through adult education seems somewhat far-fetched, or irrelevant, or overwhelming,. Those of us on the inside do not deliberately exclude those on the periphery; in fact, we spend lots of time talking about how to get more of those outside to come to events that take place on the inside.

But this unseen barrier is, for most, insurmountable.

So here is another model: This is the Open Book Model. In this model, the synagogue is a resource center, a place from which Jewish learning and activities leap off the page and into the general public, perhaps far beyond the scope of what goes on inside the building. These circles are activities based on social affinity groups. They might form within the congregation or extend beyond paid members, but they are (and this is the key feature here) given only an initial push by the clergy and synagogue staff, but largely motivated and operated by the laity. Some of the people within these circles are highly connected to the synagogue, and most are not. But they gather to do Jewish things together, under the subtle sponsorship and guidance of Temple Israel.

What does this accomplish? It allows for the congregation to reach a much wider audience for its programs; through social networks, it encourages people who might not be able to climb over the barrier for entry to be met at their level, in a comfortable, non-threatening environment. It creates an opportunity for personal engagement with Judaism for those who would otherwise never set foot in a synagogue. Let me give you an example:

Suppose I want to do a seminar on Jewish textual sources found in Israeli rock 'n' roll. In our existing model, the Club Model, I would promote it through all the various channels. I would speak to people who I know are interested in the subject; advertise in the Voice, announce it on Shabbat morning, send an email or two, put up posters, and so forth. I would likely get no more than 20 attendees, and they would all be drawn from the 15% on the inside of the barrier.

In the Open Book Model, I would find, let's say, 10 people who are interested in the subject and willing to open their homes to others. I meet with this 10 to give them the material and some guidance, and then they call all of their friends and invite them to a dessert reception at their homes, during the course of which there will be music playing and some discussion about Israeli rock 'n' roll in a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere. If each of the 10 invites only 10 more people, then we have reached 100 people, most of whom are outside the barrier of the Club Model.

Israeli rock is a fairly light example, but once these affinity groups are established and everybody is enjoying dessert and learning something about Judaism, then it is not such a stretch to move on to modern conceptions of God, for example, or the love poetry of 12th-c Spaniard Moshe Ibn Ezra. Or even selected topics in the Talmud.

I cannot, of course, claim credit for this model, but I can tell you that it is in place at a few other Jewish institutions, and it works. Furthermore, you should know that we are already experimenting at Temple Israel with this model. There are at least three such initiatives that are either in the works or under discussion, and there will soon be more.

As I was preparing for this morning, I noticed something in Parashat Vayehi that caught my eye. In the humash Etz Hayim on p. 304, verse 21 at the top of the page (Ex. 49:21), we read the following:

נפתלי אילה שלחה, הנתן אמרי-שפר

Naphtali is a hind let loose / Which yields lovely fawns.

This is in the sequence of blessings given by Jacob to all of his sons, the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. And, in fact, it is one of the shortest of these blessings; the poor tribe of Naftali gets only six words. And six difficult words, no less; as is sometimes the case with the Torah, and all the moreso when it is poetry, this verse is practically impossible to understand in the Hebrew. The translation that I just read, courtesy of the Jewish Publication Society, is just one opinion, and there are several others.

But taking for a moment the JPS translation, the image is beautiful. The hind, or female deer, that is set free, goes forth to produce lovely children.

Well, I would be thrilled to see this institution, and American Judaism in general, set free from its historical inside-the-institutional-box thinking, and move on to a new role suitable to this independent age, that will yield more fruit, more lovely fawns.

However, an opinion in the Talmud, Massekhet Sotah, takes this verse even one step further. Read not, imrei shafer, "lovely fawns," says R. Abbahu, but rather, "imrei sefer," words of the Book. Let's re-envision Temple Israel and set our words loose in the community, such that we may spread the words of Torah far and wide.

Shabbat Shalom.