12/28/2012

Shabbat Vayechi

Candles Friday 4:15pm
Havdalah Saturday at 5:20pm

This week we come to the end of the Book of Bereishit. Bereishit is full of narrative, from Creation, the Flood and on to the slow process of how human beings struggled to find a Monotheistic, ethical, way to live within a just society. At the same time other civilizations were also developing their own religions. But all of them have disappeared and we alone remain in a direct link to the Jewish Way of Life that became The Torah, starting with the Sinai Revelation in the Book of Exodus over three thousand years ago.

Many Jews who struggle to understand or keep the Jewish way of life often say “We understand the grand ideas of being a good human being, but why do we need all these petty, little rules and laws?”

The answer is that the greatest of ideas, emotions and achievements are wonderful in theory. But if they are not translated into daily actions, they become mere sentimentality. I may say I love my wife, or I believe in being honest, but if I don’t act that way every day, what value there to the slogan? Or if I say I want to be healthy and fit but I do not exercise or diet, then like every New Year’s Resolution, it gets forgotten within a few days.

We need big ideas. We need our history and our narratives to tell us about where we have come from and where we should go to. But if we don’t actually behave as if they matter, they won’t. When we pass on to our children what matters to us, we do it in two ways, by talking, telling and reciting but most all by acting.

So by all means make your New Year Resolutions and have a Good Year. But remember it’s what you do that makes an impression much more than what you say or think.


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12/20/2012

Shabbat Vayigash

Candles Friday 4:12pm
Havdalah 5:10pm

Sunday Asarah BTevet Fast of 10th of Tevet

When Joseph sent his brothers back to Canaan to bring their father and families back down to live in Egypt, he told them “Al Tirgezu Baderech.” The phrase literally means “Don’t argue on the way.” After all the Hebrew word ‘Brogez’ means angry, argumentative. And given the rivalries between the brothers and the natural tendency to blame others, the simple translation makes sense given the circumstances.

But the Midrash gives another explanation which Rashi quotes. Do not spend too much time arguing about matters of Jewish law. This seemingly anachronistic explanation on the surface does not make sense. The Talmudic academies emerged only in Babylon under the scribes, the Soferim, even though a similarly anachronistic Midrash says that Shem and Ever had a yeshivah at the time of our forefathers. The rabbis obviously wanted to stress that the tradition of study and debate went back to the origins of our tradition. And it is not so strange because the Torah is a Book of Law and whenever you have law there will always be debates and arguments.

The Talmudic tradition which is alive and dynamic today is indeed founded on debate and argument. But you can argue in a civilized way or in a crude, aggressive way. Sadly nowadays too much argument whether it is religious, political or just personal is aggressive and disrespectful. And the message that the Midrash wants to give us that human qualities matter as much as religious ones and respect for humans is linked to respect for God.

The Fast of Asarah BeTevet marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem.

We fast from Dawn to Dusk on Sunday to recognize the beginning of the process that led to awful destruction. It was not too late to draw back and resolve the conflict. But we ignored the chances of agreement and we went over the cliff! Have we not leant from history?

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12/13/2012

Shabbat Mikeytz

Candles Friday 14th at 4:10 pm
Havdalah 15th at 5:05 pm

The more I read about Joseph the more impressed I am. The way he rebounded from one disaster after another, how he worked hard to reach the top time and time again and how when he got there he knew how to keep both his boss and the masses happy, avoid offending entrenched priestly interests, running an economy with booms and busts and avoiding irrational exuberance. No shifty Insider Dealing, Hedge Fund Manager or rogue trader he. He subjected his brothers to a rigid process of selection before hiring them to make sure they’d accept his authority. And throughout it all, the lows and the high, he preserved his spiritual integrity and values. A poster boy for Jewish talent and adaptability.

You could on the other hand argue that he was vain and selfish and never had the courtesy to at least write one letter. He started off by being identified as a Hebrew but then never mentioned it again as he rose up the ranks. He threw himself far too easily into Egyptian culture and convinced everyone he was one of them. He married an Egyptian girl, bought a palace in the suburbs and drove a fancy chariot. He could be a picture book example of assimilation. He arranged a special trip home to Hebron to bury his father but no longer cared enough to do the same for himself.

The fact is the narratives of the Torah lend themselves to multiple possibilities and variations. But each one of us is invited to find the interpretation that most suits our own predicament and circumstances. The real significance for us of the story is the lesson we draw from it.

12/08/2012

Shabbat Vayeyshev

Candles Friday 7th 4:10 pm
Havadalah Saturday 8th 5:05 pm

Rosh Chodesh Tevet on Friday December 14th

The issue of giving presents on Chanukah is a major distinction between the Ashkenazi and the Sefaradi world. The Ashkenazis grew up in a Christian world where celebrating Xmas was a major occasion. The Christian tradition is indeed to give gifts to commemorate the myth of gifts given to the baby that they thought would be their Messiah. And indeed there was a Catholic tradition of giving presents over 12 days.

Jews always gave gifts on each festival because of the command to “rejoice in your festivals.” And of course on Purim we are commanded to give each other gifts to celebrate the deliverance from Haman as specified in the Megillah. But there was no source in halacha for giving gifts on Chanukah until very recently. Apart from lighting the candles the only customs are to eat cakes fried in oil to reiterate the miracle of the oil lasting eight days and to gamble, something traditionally forbidden but allowed on Chanukah because our deliverance from the Greeks was a gamble, a risk and a winning bet.

Ashkenazis started giving gifts on Chanukah so that their children would not feel bad when all the non-Jewish children around then were getting gifts because Chanukah usually coincided with Christmas. And since we give gifts on all festivals, why shouldn’t we on Chanukah too? Except there is a problem if the only reason we give gifts is to imitate Christian customs. We should be secure and confident in our religious tradition without needing to follow others. Thanksgiving for example is a civil festival and that’s why many traditional Jews in America celebrate it. But Christmas as its name implies, is not. Some argue that nowadays Christmas is also a civil ceremony of materialism and has little to do with religion.

Nevertheless Sefaradim have tended to be proud of the fact that they have not given in to outside pressure. All the more so on Chanukah, precisely because the Maccabee rebellion against Greek rule was specifically because the Greeks had tried to assimilate the Jews to their different culture and religion.

It is fitting that we read from the Torah this week about how Joseph was able to resist capitulating to Egyptian culture. Outwardly he conformed but inwardly he remained loyal to his roots.