Friday, December 28, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: A Midrash on the Origins of the Sh'ma

Scholars of liturgy tell us there are three categories of prayer: petition, where we ask God for something; thanksgiving, where we thank God for something; and praise, where we praise God for something. Admittedly, the line between prayers of praise and of thanksgiving can be a little unclear.

When teaching this material, I then go on to ask about the Shema. Most of us have been taught at one point or another that the Shema is the "most important prayer in Judaism." If so, which category of prayer does it fit into?

The students then discover that the "most important prayer in Judaism" is not, in fact, a prayer at all. It isn't even addressed to God -- it's addressed to us, Israel, the Jewish people.

What is the origin of the Shema? There is a legend that places it in the encounter in this week's parasha between Jacob and his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe. The biblical text itself tells us that when Jacob was on his deathbed in Egypt, Joseph brings his sons to visit their grandfather. He doesn't know who they are and asks Joseph "mi elleh?," who are they?

Now we delve into the realm of midrash. Why didn't Jacob recognize his own grandchildren? Perhaps because they were dressed as the children of an Egyptian noble and spoke Egyptian rather than Hebrew to each other. So Jacob could not possibly believe that these assimilated young men were indeed his Hebrew grandchildren. When told that this is indeed who they were, he was distraught.

At that point, the grandchildren said to him "Shema, Yisrael. Listen up, Israel (remember that this was Jacob's other name, given to him by the angel). Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad -- Adonai is our God, Adonai alone." And Jacob was so relieved to hear this, he replied "baruch shem k'vod malchuto l'olam va-ed -- praised be God's name for ever and ever!"

This midrash comes to teach us that the essence of Jewish identity is not language or dress but belief and behavior. We are Jews not because we share our ancestors dress and language -- indeed, many Jews do not even have Jewish biological ancestors -- but rather because we share the Patriarchs' and Matriarchs' faith in God and observance of mitzvot.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Two-minute Torah: Exile

More than twenty years ago, when I was the Hillel director at the University of Virginia, I went with a few friends to see an English-language performance of a Palestinian theater company. The play was set in a mythical future, and in it a messenger is sent to a Palestinian family living in Boston. The Palestinian state has been established, the messenger tells them, and they make plans to donate money to help the new entity. But the messenger informs them that no, he has not come to collect money. Rather, he has come to inform them that it is time to come back to Palestine. They explain that they can't do that at the moment. There are all kinds of reasons -- a child has to finish college, another child has medical needs that can only be met in the United States, and so on. They definitely plan to go live in Palestine, but not yet. In the meantime, please accept our donations for our needy brothers and sisters.

All of us in our small group laughed uncomfortably. We had all spent some serious time in Israel. A couple of us had made unsuccessful attempts at aliyah (immigration to Israel) and all of us knew Israelis families that were living in the US, some for many years, yet always steadfastly maintained that they had not left Israel permanently and would go back when conditions allowed. It seemed that "diaspora Palestinians" were not all that different from Jews.

In Parashat Va-yigash which we read this week, Jacob is preparing to leave Israel and join his son Joseph with the rest of the family in Egypt. He doesn't really want to leave Israel, but God tells him (Genesis 46:4) "I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will surely bring you up again." Rabbi Jacob miLita's commentary on this verse says that God is foreseeing here that Jacob's descendants would become used to exile, because God would "go down with" us to Egypt but "bring" us up . This implies that the descent to Egypt was voluntary but that God would have to use force to get us out of exile and back to the Promised Land.

Every day many of our prayers include a petition to God to bring us out of exile and return us to Zion. Yet a return to Zion is as close as the nearest airport. And the number of American Jews who have successfully made aliyah is dwarfed by the number of Israelis living more-or-less permanently in the United States. Is exile the natural condition of the Jewish people? What do you think?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Amalek, Guns, and Us

Sermon Delivered Friday Evening Dec. 14 2012
Rabbi Charles Arian
Kehilat Shalom, Gaithersburg, MD

In the Jewish tradition the epitome of evil is Amalek. In Deuteronomy 17 we are taught why there is a war between God and Amalek forever: “Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God.”

Judaism teaches us to have special care for the most vulnerable among us, those who are helpless and defenseless. The Amalekites are considered especially evil because they attacked, not soldiers, but precisely those who were most helpless and defenseless -- the elderly, the stragglers, and children.

My friend Rabbi Jack Bloom of Fairfield CT wrote an article some years on “Amalek and Us” where he points out that the Hebrew text, as opposed to most English translations, is actually fairly ambiguous. The Hebrew does not really make explicit that it was Amalek who did not fear God. The Hebrew says “atah ayef v’yageah, v’lo ya’rei ‘elohim” --- literally, “you were tired and weary and did not fear God.” While most translations assume that it is Amalek who did not fear God, the Hebrew text leaves open the possibility that it was the Israelites who did not fear God. In their own weariness, in their own fear, they were the ones who left the most vulnerable members of their society defenseless. Yes, Amalek was evil and there is no justification for attacking the weary and the stragglers; but it was us who did not fear God, by leaving the vulnerable exposed, and it is our own inaction which allowed Amalek to attack.

Our children are the most dependent and vulnerable members of our society and this morning we failed to protect them, and thus Amalek, the epitome of evil, struck. A society is judged by how well it cares for those who are most vulnerable, and this morning our society failed. Rabbi Bloom teaches us that if we don’t take care of the defenseless ones, we do not fear God. And the truth is, we don’t. The Shabbat after Columbine I gave a sermon and I said I would not rest until we had stronger gun laws in our country. And I was very passionate about the issue for about two weeks and then things pretty much went back to normal. And I am sure that I am not alone.

Do we fear God? Do our politicians fear God or do they fear the NRA? Until we figure out a way to protect the most defenseless ones who have been entrusted to our care, we have truly failed as a society.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: Joseph Dines Solo

Joseph's brothers have come down to Egypt a second time, this time

bringing with them their youngest brother Benjamin. Joseph of course

knows who they are but they still do not know who he is. The brothers

are invited to a festive banquet at Joseph's house. The seating

arrangements are odd. The brothers are at one table, Joseph's staff

and household at another, and Joseph eats by himself. The text tells

us that Joseph's Hebrew brothers had to sit separately from everyone

else because the Egyptians will not dine at the same table as Hebrews,

because "it is an abomination to the Egyptians."

But the text does not tell us why Joseph has to eat by himself. We

know why, as the viceroy of Egypt, he can't eat with his brothers who

are foreigners. But why can't he eat with the other Egyptians?

Both our current Etz Hayyim commentary and the older Hertz Chumash say

that it has to do with social status -- that it would have been

demeaning for Joseph to eat with his staff members. But I don't think

this necessarily has to be the case.

I think rather that Joseph has to eat by himself because he

exemplifies the existential dilemma of the first Diaspora Jew. Joseph

was of course born in the Land of Israel but wound up living in Egypt

where he attained fame, fortune, and power. And so he is different

than has brothers, who are not immigrants but merely visitors. But he

is also different than the other Egyptians because he is a Hebrew.

Presumably, he keeps kosher and needs different food, different

utensils, and so on. Just as he is somewhat alienated from his

fellow-Hebrews because of his status as Egyptian nobility, he is

somewhat alienated from the other Egyptian nobles because of his

Hebrew origins and especially his religious practices.

We are nearing the end of the Book of Genesis and will soon begin the

Book of Exodus. We will read of a new king of Egypt "who knew not

Joseph." There is a difference between the derivative power of Joseph

and the sovereign power of Jews living in their own land. The stranger

and sojourner always lives at the sufferance of others, and what is

given can be taken away. Are we American Jews Joseph? I think not, but

nevertheless this is a cautionary tale of the difference between

Diaspora and sovereignty.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: The Most Important Human Character in Genesis Is . . .

If you were asked to name the most important human character in the Book of Genesis, you probably would not name Joseph. And yet, more space in Genesis is devoted to Joseph than to any other human being. Abraham merits three parshiot, weekly Torah portions, while the Joseph saga is spread out over four, starting with Vayeshev which we read this Shabbat.

The Torah presupposes an Israelite commonwealth living in its own land. A significant proportion of the Torah’s commandments can only be observed in the Land of Israel -- virtually all of the commandments dealing with agriculture, of which there are many. And yet, the fact is that most of Jewish history has taken place outside of the Land of Israel. While Rabbinic Judaism first developed in the Land of Israel, it did so under Roman occupation, and the most important work of Rabbinic Judaism is the Babylonian Talmud, written in what is today Iraq.

Perhaps this is the real reason for all of the emphasis on Joseph, who was in essence the first Diaspora Jew. He was a sabra, true, born in the Land of Israel, but he rose to political power not in Israel but in the capital of the most powerful country on Earth at the time, Egypt. While for the Torah the ideal is to live in Israel, the reality is that throughout most of our history -- and today -- the majority of Jews have lived elsewhere. For those of us who live today in the capital of the most powerful country on Earth, is Joseph a role model

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: Two Camps

Jacob has not seen his brother Esau for about twenty years. Jacob knows that Esau is coming with his retinue to meet him, but he doesn't know what Esau's intentions are. They had, of course, parted on bad terms, with Jacob having cheated Esau of his birthright. Is Esau coming to seek revenge?

On the chance that Esau has mayhem in mind, Jacob decides to split his own family and property into two camps. This way, he rationalizes, if Esau decides to attack, he will only kill half of Jacob's family and destroy or capture half of his property. The other half will remain.

While the particulars were different in biblical times, the concern and the strategy itself are familiar. I am sure that you know families (I certainly do) where they are very careful not to have both parents travel on the same flight. The fear, or course, is that the plane will crash; and this way, at least one parent will remain. (This of course ignores the fact that air travel is much safer than car travel, and I don't know any families that make sure that both parents don't travel together in the same car.)

Is this concern applicable to a people as a whole? Within Zionism, there is a long-standing debate on what is known as "negation of the Diaspora." What is the purpose of Zionism? While some say that it is to create a Jewish state for those Jews who choose to live there, others believe that all Jews should live in Israel. According to the proponents of "negation of the Diaspora" the existence of a people where more than half live outside its national state is unnatural. The Diaspora, according to this theory, will ultimately disappear through either assimilation or antisemitism, and those Jews who care about their descendants' continued existence as Jews should move to Israel as soon as possible.

One wonders if the patriarch Jacob would have agreed. Is it a wise idea to put all our eggs into one basket? History is cunning and unpredictable. Is Jewish survival best served by concentrating our entire people in one place? Or are we better off with some of our people in Israel, some in the United States (far and away the two largest Jewish communities) and some in other places like Argentina, France, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Eastern Europe? What do you think?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: Jewish Geography

In this week's Torah portion, Va-Yeitzei, Jacob leaves Beersheva and heads

north towards Haran, in Mesopotamia (today's Iraq) to find a wife. As he

gets closer to his destination he meets some shepherds and asks them if they

know Laban the son of Nahor, Jacob's uncle. They reply that they do indeed

know him and tell him some of what's going on with the family.

This may be the first example of "Jewish geography." I once heard someone

state that any two Jews in the world know a third Jew in common, and I have

not yet seen this assertion proven false. It may take you ten or fifteen

minutes but sooner or later, if you meet another Jewish person, you can come

up with someone that you both know. As an example of how Jewish geography

works, two of the members of Kehilat Shalom were active participants in different Hillel Foundations 

which I directed, one at the University of Virginia and one at American University. A past president of 

Kehilat Shalom has a cousin who is married to my cousin. Several members have parents, cousins, 

or sibling whom I know in one way or the other. There is really a sense that we are all one, big, 

extended family.

I think that this sense of community is one of our great strengths. I am

pretty certain that anywhere I go, if I don't know someone, someone else I

know does. If I need advice or get in trouble, I know there is someone I can

call on who will help me out, even if they don't know me, because of a

mutual friend. Despite our disagreements over politics, religious practice,

and everything else under the sun, we still remain one family.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: The Trickster is Tricked

One of the cardinal rules of Jewish preaching one learns in rabbinical school is never to preach against the text. In other words, if the Jewish tradition sees an act or character as positive, one should not give a sermon or write a commentary saying the opposite. Similarly if the tradition sees a character as evil, one cannot legitimately claim Jewish sanction for portraying him as good; the classic example would be a sermon portraying Pharaoh as a "tragically misunderstood hero."

But sometimes this rule is hard to follow. Our Parasha this week, Toldot, tells us the familiar story of how Jacob swindled his brother Esau out of his birthright. He does this in two ways. First, when Esau comes home hungry from a hard day of hunting, Jacob forces him to sell him his birthright before he will give him any of the lentil stew he has just finished cooking. Second, when their father Isaac sends Esau out to hunt again and bring him something to eat "so that my soul will bless you", Jacob and his mother Rebecca collaborate in an elaborate plan to trick Isaac into thinking that Jacob is Esau. In both these cases the behavior of Jacob cannot but trouble us.

What is interesting is that immediately before this story, Isaac tricks Abimelech, the king of Gerrar. Perhaps Abimelech is not too bright. Several chapters earlier Abraham instructs Sarah to tell Abimelech that she is his sister rather than his wife, fearing that they will kill him in order to take her. Now Isaac does exactly the same thing, but when Abimelech catches Isaac and Rebecca "in the act" he discovers that once again he has been tricked.

And so the deceiver is himself deceived. We have a tendency to treat others as they treat us. While karma is not formally a Jewish concept, there is a sense in the Bible of measure for measure. Or as my friend and teacher Father James Walsh, SJ, of Georgetown University says: "there is no reward and punishment in the Bible, there are consequences."

The consequences of Jacob and Esau's quarrel over the birthright have been with us for centuries. Esau asked his father if he has only one blessing. Isaac may have indeed had only one, but God has many. May we learn to respect those of other faiths and may they learn to respect us as well.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: Abraham and the Settlements, Or How to Use the Torah to Prove Whatever You Want

The first academic article I ever published, back in 1984, was an analysis of the use of the beginning of this week's Parasha, Chayyei Sarah, in Israeli religious circles. The Parasha begins with the death of Sarah in Hebron. Abraham, describing himself to the locals as a "stranger and sojourner," buys the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite as an "achuzat kever," a family burial plot. But the word "achuza" is significant because it evokes permanent ownership and the right to hand it down from generation to generation.

So this Biblical story clearly supports the building of Jewish settlements in Hebron. Abraham bought the land, he has the right to pass it on to his descendants. We Jews are his descendants, the land belongs to us by right, end of story.

So says the religious (i.e., Orthodox) settlement movement.

Not so fast, says the religious (i.e., Orthodox) peace movement. Abraham bought the land, even though it had already been promised him by God. If God had promised him the land, why didn't he just take it, since it was his by divine fiat? Nevertheless he bought the land, because he valued peaceful relationships with his neighbors. He knew that simply taking the land by force would lead to conflict, which he sought to avoid. Therefore, this text clearly supports recognition that the Palestinians have rights in the land as well, and that Israel needs to seek some sort of mutual accommodation with them.

Which interpretation is correct? I suspect that how you read this text will depend on how you are already predisposed to read it. Which interpretation speaks to you?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: Brothers and Rivals

A number of years ago the late Cardinal Rene Lustiger visited Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. This in and of itself was remarkable. Cardinal Lustiger was born in France, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants, in 1926. During Word War II and the Nazi occupation of France he took refuge among Catholics and ultimately converted to Catholicism. His parents were both imprisoned in concentration camps; his mother died, his father survived. Lustiger became a priest and eventually a bishop and cardinal, but he always acknowledged his Jewish roots and went to synagogue on his parents' Yahrzeits to say Kaddish in their memory.

Chovevei Torah is on "Open Orthodox" rabbinical school and they certainly proved their openness by welcoming this halachically-Jewish cardinal to visit and address the students and faculty. During the visit Cardinal Lustiger quoted Pope John Paul II's statement that Jews and Catholics are brothers and that it is the duty of all Catholics to respect their older brothers. Rabbi Avi Weiss, the head of the Yeshiva, responded that in the Torah the older brother usually got the short end of the stick and maybe it was time for the Jews to be the younger brother!

The pattern of the younger brother supplanting the elder is a strong motif in the Book of Genesis.In this week's Parasha, Vayera, Isaac is the favored son though Ishmael is older.  Jacob is the favored son though Esau is older. Joseph, too, is favored, though of course he is only the 11th out of 12.

When Esau in a few weeks discovers that Jacob has stolen his blessing, he asks "do you have only one blessing, my father?" It is a good question. Must it be the case that God loves those of one particular religion more than those of all others? Or has God more than one blessing?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

My Remarks at My Installation Service -- 10/27/12

Thank you Rabbi (Jeffrey) Wohlberg for delivering the Installation Address. Rabbi Wohlberg was my first role model as a Conservative rabbi when I lived in Washington in the early 1990s and attended Adas Israel.

My childhood rabbi, Rabbi Henry Weiner, rabbi emeritus of Temple Shalom in Aberdeen, NJ and his wife Rickie are also here tonight, and I am touched beyond words. Thank you to my rabbinical school friend Rabbi Laura Rappaport for giving the invocation. I am glad my father Elliott Arian and his wife Lee, my brother Peter and his daughter Maggie are here today. And my wife Keleigh, without whom I could do nothing. My mother Audrey was not well enough to travel from Florida and our daughter Berkeleigh could not get out of work in Louisville, where she lives.

In Pirkei Avot we read "azeihu chacham? Ha-lomed mi-kol adam" Who is wise? One who is open to learning from anybody. While I don't have the chutzpah to claim the title of "chacham" I will tell you that one of the people from whom I have learned the most is not a rabbi and not a Jew but a Jesuit priest, Fr. James Walsh, one of my professors at Georgetown University. He will be giving the benediction at the conclusion of this ceremony.

A number of years ago I happened upon a speech that Fr. Walsh gave as part of Commencement back in 1986, the year that I was ordained a rabbi and that my brother graduated from Georgetown.

In this speech, Fr. Walsh said that

"education is a matter of “conversation.” It has to do with listening to and taking part in a conversation that has been going on for four or five thousand years. It tries to bring you into that conversation, with Shakespeare and Aquinas and Freud and Plato and Isaiah and a great many other people. It forms habits of mind that make you capable of being part of that conversation: reverence, a historical sense, a certain critical (and self-critical) awareness, an ability to enter generously, sympathetically, and imaginatively into the lives and feelings of people of other times and cultures. It forms in you the ability to listen; to go out of yourself; to be friends. And what do you need to take part in this conversation? Why, those same qualities: the ability to listen, to go out of yourself, to be friends. The goal and the way to the goal are the same. In this conversation, there are people who have been at it for some time, who want to bring you in to it—to share with you what they love, and to enjoy it with you as friends.

It seems to me that much of what Fr. Walsh says about "education" also applies to Judaism. Yes, we are a religion, but there are many irreligious Jews who still consider themselves Jews. Yes, we are a nation, but most of us don't live in our national homeland or speak our national language. Yes, we are an ethnicity, but more and more Jews today are not biologically descended from Jewish ancestors. What Judaism really is, after all, is a kind of conversation across the generations, or in Hebrew "siach l'dor va-dor."
If you ask most Conservative or Reform Jews what the central text of Judaism is, they will probably say the Bible or the Torah. But really, our central text is the Talmud. As my rabbinical school professor Jacob Rader Marcus o.b. m. said in class, "the Bible is not a Jewish book. The Talmud is a Jewish book. The only thing the Bible is good for is she'neemar -- as it is written." Or as another professor of mine, Michael Cook, said: "Judaism is not what the Bible says. Judaism is what the Rabbis said the Bible means."

And what is the Talmud if not precisely a conversation, a siach, about "what the Bible means" and how to live our lives according to its teachings? One of the most amazing experiences a new student of Talmud can have is to follow a sugya, a back and forth discussion about a law or the interpretation of a text, where two sages are debating back and forth and attempting to refute each other, only to pick up a history book or a guide to Talmud study and realize that these two rabbis lived several hundred years apart and one lived in Palestine while the other lived in Babylonia. Obviously, these two sages were not in direct conversation with one another, but their teachings were known. Each had his disciples, and the rabbis of the Talmud were very careful to attribute teachings properly. And so, the editors of the Talmud some 1500 years ago were able to, as it were, reconstruct the conversion that would have taken place between the two -- a conversation across the generations.

The goal of Judaism is not individual salvation. It is to create a holy community -- a kehila kedosha, a term which most synagogues, including ours, have in their legal Hebrew names. This kehila functions on many levels -- the family, the synagogue, the regional, national and world Jewish communities, and the State of Israel.

Precisely because Judaism is lived in community, I am responsible not only to myself but to the others members of my community. If I am to say Kaddish, you must come to the minyan. If Mr. and Mrs. X's children are to have a religious school, Dr. Y must agree to teach and Ms. Z must agree to be the religious school principal.
So we are responsible to each other, and therefore we must converse with one another. Our conversation is about what God wants of us, how to best implement our understanding of God's demands in our lives, how to strengthen our community and how to make the world a better place. But our community is not just a random collection of individuals; our community is a Jewish community. That is why our conversation must be a conversation among the generations, siach l'dor va-dor.

We have a responsibility to past generations. We are Conservative Jews because we are committed to conserving the Jewish tradition. But we are not "preservative" Jews nor are we curators of a museum. We are not obligated to live our lives precisely as our ancestors did, but we should be able to feel that they would recognize in some way the ties that bind us to them and the continuities from their way of life to ours.

We are not preservative Jews because our responsibility is not only to the past, it is also to the future. The Midrash tells us that the soul of every Jew who ever would live stood at Sinai to receive the Torah. So our conversation between generations includes not only the past but the future as well. We must consider not only what will work best for us in the present and how we maintain our continuity with the past, but also what will best serve future generations.

This is not an easy task, and over the last couple of years this congregation has been through some difficult times. Our difficulties are not over -- we are still revamping and rationalizing our office procedures and looking for permanent staff to implement them.

But as we move forward I hope we will remember Father Walsh’s words -- the goal and the way to the goal are the same: to listen, to go out of yourself, to be friends. Over the last three months in sixteen separate “Coffee Chats” I have listened to 160 individual members of Kehilat Shalom talk about what brought them here and what keeps them here. I have heard some sadness and some pain and even some anger, but I have also heard a lot of love and hope and devotion.

I am quite confident that we can get through these challenges with a little help from God and a lot of hard work of our own. What will it take? The ability to listen, to go out of ourselves, to be friends.

We need to listen to each other -- it is OK to disagree and indeed we should disagree. Anything worth fighting for is worth fighting over. But our disagreements should never spill over into disrespect or questioning the other person’s motives.

We need to go out of ourselves -- yes, we should preserve what we love and what is familiar, but we need to step out of our comfort zone and accept the fact that there is nothing in life so inevitable as change.

And we need to be friends. Our congregational motto is “where friends become family” and in the three months we’ve been here, Keleigh and I have very much found this to be true. We have been embraced, loved, cared for. We are grateful beyond words.

Last night I installed the boards of the synagogue, sisterhood, and men’s club. Tonight, turnabout is fair play and you install me. Together, we can and we will make Kehilat Shalom a true Community of Peace -- if we listen, go out of ourselves, and be friends.

Ken y’hi ratzon -- May this be God’s will.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: For Your Own Good

First, a Hebrew lesson. The fourth word of this week's Parasha provides us with yet another example of how it is impossible to truly understand the Torah without at least a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew. God says to Abram "lech-lecha", but what does "lech-lecha" mean? The "lech" part is pretty simple, it is an imperative, a command, meaning "go." But the "lecha" part is not so clear. It can mean "to yourself" or "for yourself" or it could just be poetic alliteration.

Rashi understands it as meaning "for yourself" and amplifies it: "l'tovat'kha u'l'hana'at'kha" -- for your good and for your benefit. In other words, Rashi is telling us that God is promising Abram that the result of his journey will be beneficial to him.

In the midrashic tradition, Abraham (at this point still known as Abram) undergoes ten trials. The last, of course, is the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. The first is this command, "lech lecha."

But wait, the Sefas Emes, a Chasidic commentator who lived about 100 years ago says. How can it be a trial if Abram knows that God has already promised him that it will be for his own benefit?

And then he answers his own question. Knowing that it would be beneficial to him was precisely the trial that Abram faced. Abram's desire was to do everything purely out of obedience to God and not for any other motive. How could he maintain that purity of motive knowing that his obedience would also prove beneficial to him in a "this world" way?

What a counter-cultural thought. Those of us who are rabbis and Jewish educators often find ourselves in the position of "selling" Judaism, of convincing people to observe mitzvot which they don't currently observe, to support the community and so on. We generally try to convince people that they will benefit personally in some way: people need a day of rest, a Shabbat meal brings the family together, keeping kosher will help you feel closer to God, and so on. But the Sefas Emes is saying that's not what Judaism is about at all. Our only desire should be obedience to God; any other motivation simply gets in the way.

Does this speak to you at all? What motivates you to do the Jewish things you do?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: Righteous in His Generation

The Torah reading this week is Parashat Noach which begins with the story of Noah. The very first sentence of the parasha tells us that Noah was upright “in his generation.” Anyone familiar with rabbinic interpretation will immediately be drawn to that phrase, because it seems superfluous. Why doesn’t the Torah just tell us Noah was upright? What does “in his generation” add to our learning?

Rashi tells us that there are two possible interpretations, without himself choosing which one is correct. One possibility is that “in his generations” is a form of damning by faint praise. It is only “in his generation” that he is considered righteous -- in other words, comparatively but not absolutely. He was the least evil person in a very evil generation and thus by comparison could be considered righteous; but had he lived in a different generation he would not have been particularly noteworthy.

The other possibility is that Noah’s righteousness is all the more noteworthy given that he lived among evildoers. By this understanding, it is easy to be righteous when everyone around you is also righteous -- just as it is easier to keep kosher in Jerusalem than in New York City, and easier in New York City than in Gaithersburg. But it is harder to be righteous when all around you, social pressure is pushing you in the direction of evil.

Which is true? One thing for certain that we learn from this debate is that all living is contextual. Our surroundings do influence us. It is harder to hold to our principles when all around us we see others violating them; but perhaps on the other side, we deserve all the more credit for doing so. I suspect that in the end, both possibilities that Rashi offers can be true simultaneously.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: In the Beginning . . . of What?

Did you know that the Torah begins with a grammatical impossibility?

The first sentence of the Torah, "Bereshit bara Elohim et ha-shamayim v'et ha-aretz" cannot possibly mean "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" although that is how it is most often translated. Forgive me a little lesson in grammar, if you would.

The "be" part of "bereshit" is a participle which means "with" or "at" or "in" or "for." "Reshit" is what is known as a construct state and best translated as "beginning of." As an example of a construct state, look at the phrases "Simchat Torah" or "Birkat HaMazon." Simchat Torah means "joy of Torah" and in a non-construct state we do not say "simchat" but rather "simchah". Birkat HaMazon means "blessing for the food" and in a non-construct state we do not say "birkat" but rather "b'racha." So a literal translation of "bereshit bara Elohim" has to be "In the beginning of, God created." An accurate translation, to be sure, but one which makes no sense. In the beginning of what?

Since this is a "two-minute Torah" and not a "two-hour Torah," I will not explore all the possible understandings of why the Torah begins in this way and what those greater than I have said about this over the millenia. I'll just share with you the comment of Rashi, who says that in order to make sense of this you have to understand the verse not literally but rather midrashically. Rashi breaks the word "bereshit" down into its two components. He says what the Torah means to teach us here is that the world was created "with reshit" or "for the sake of reshit."

Rashi finds other examples of the word "reshit" in Scripture. Torah is called "reshit chochma", the beginning of wisdom, and Israel is called "reshit t'vuato," the first of God's fruits. So, Rashi says, the Torah wishes to teach us that God created the world for the sake of Torah and for the sake of Israel.

In other words, the key "take away" is that creation has a purpose. God created the world for a reason, and life is not meaningless.

Bear this in mind the next time you hear someone insist that the only possible understanding of Genesis is a literalist, creationist reading. More than 900 years ago, the greatest of all Jewish biblical commentators thought otherwise. The Bible is not about history, Rashi says, it is about theology. This does not mean the Bible "isn't true," it just means that the Bible's truth is symbolic and midrashic.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: Seeing God's Face

This Shabbat is known as “Shabbat Hol Ha-Moed Sukkot,” the intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot. When an intermediate day of either Sukkot or Pesach falls on Shabbat, we read a special reading rather than from the weekly cycle.

This Shabbat’s reading from Exodus concludes with the commandment to appear before God on the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, and this is why the reading was chosen. (As a linguistic aside, the Hebrew word “” which colloquially means holiday, strictly speaking refers only to the three pilgrimage festivals and is a cognate of the Arabic “h.ajj” or pilgrimge to Mecca.)

But immediately prior to this, Moses has what can only be described as a “meltdown” after he comes down from Mt. Sinai to find that the Israelites have made the Golden Calf. He demands that God show him His face or he will not agree to continue in his leadership role. God tells Moses that no one can see His face and live, but He will show Moses His back?

What does it mean to say that we cannot see God’s face but we can see His back? Does God have a face? A back? Why can we see the latter but not the former?

Come to shul this Shabbat morning to hear my perspective on this question and share your own thoughts.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Yom Kippur Day Sermon

Yom Kippur Day Sermon 5773
Kehilat Shalom, Gaithersburg, MD
Rabbi Charles L. Arian

Two construction workers sat down together to have lunch at their job site. The first worker reached into his lunch box and pulled out a sandwich. He took a bite, spit it out with disgust, and said, “Yecch, ham on white bread.” He reached into the lunch box again and took out a second sandwich. He bit into that one, again spit it out and said, “Blecch, turkey on whole wheat.”
The second construction worker said to him: “you know, if you hate what you have for lunch so much, why don’t you speak to your wife and ask her to make you something different?”
“My wife?” the first construction worker said. “I made these myself.”

About a hundred years ago there was a rabbi in Warsaw named Yehuda Leib Alter. He was the rebbe of the Gerer Hasidim and he wrote a Torah commentary known as the Sfas Emes, which means “The Language of Truth.” My friend Rabbi Steve Sager of Durham, NC, got me interested in reading the Sfas Emes a number of years ago. Rabbi Sager called the Sfas Emes “the first post-modern Jewish theologian” and he was right. The Sfas Emes had a unique ability to penetrate to the heart of the Torah and help us understand how it speaks to every Jew.
The Sfas Emes, in his commentary on Exodus, asks an interesting question. What did the generation which left Egypt do to merit redemption? After all, they were, when it comes down to it, not such righteous people. They rebelled against Moses, several times, tried to overthrow him and tried to return to Egypt. No less astonishingly, after witnessing God’s power both at the Red Sea and at Sinai, they committed the sin of the Golden Calf. So, how is it that they merited redemption?
The answer, the Sfas Emes teaches us, is quite simple. Prior to the generation that left Egypt, the Torah does record that the Hebrew slaves complained about their lot. But, they never asked to go free. As soon as the people asked to go free, God freed them.
The point is not some arbitrary insistence by God that the people ask for freedom, like a five year old that won’t lend out his toy until his friend “asks nicely.” No, the point is that the first step on the road to freedom is to imagine that freedom is actually possible. It’s not enough to know that you don’t like the current situation. Or, to go back to our construction workers, it’s not enough to know that you don’t like ham on white or turkey on whole wheat. The point is, you have to imagine a different possibility. Many people lack the hope that things could be different. That hope, I believe, is a gift of God, if we choose to accept it; it is the gift of teshuvah, of transformation.

Several years ago when we lived in Baltimore, I read an article in a local monthly, The Urbanite,  which made this point quite eloquently. I do not know if the author, Kelly Parisi, is Jewish, or if she has any religious identification at all. I do know that what she wrote reflects a sensibility, which is deeply consonant with the message of our High Holiday prayers.
Kelly Parisi was 38 years old when her 42-year-old husband died of cancer. She writes: “the experience purged me like a fire . . . For the first time I understood ownership was an illusion. Nothing belonged to me – not the people I loved, not my own life. Everything was on loan, due date unknown.”
A few months after her husband’s death, she made a life-changing decision “one night in the grocery store after a few months of widowhood. Wandering the aisle, my basket bone empty, it dawned on me that I couldn’t remember what I liked to eat. I stood there looking at various foods and asking myself, do I like that? And I really didn’t know. I had been caring for my husband for so long, thinking about only what he could eat, that drinking a can of Boost and calling it a day had become good enough for me.”
“Confused and a little desperate, I bought three bags of Oreos, drove to Baskin-Robbins, ordered a chocolate malt and sat in the car taking stock. Gone was more than my appetite. I had lost my future and my dreams. At 38 years old, a friend had referred to me as “middle-aged and widowed.” Sometimes I felt a hundred years old, yet sitting alone in a parking lot at 9 p.m., eating cookies and drinking a malted milkshake just because I could, made me feel downright juvenile. I vowed to continue.”
“The Oreo diet worked wonders. After a few months I added Cheerios, olives, kiwi, and tuna. If it didn’t end in a vowel, I didn’t eat it. True, it was an eccentric sort of self-care, strange, intuitive and absurd, yet unquestionably correct. Slowly, one sweet choice at a time, I reconstructed my life.” She writes that she ultimately decided to give up her career as a graphic designer to go back to school and pursue a master’s degree in her true passion, creative writing.

The point is not that we should all give up our well-paying careers and pursue our passions. Kelly Parisi doesn’t mention having kids, so I guess she doesn’t, which no doubt made it easier for her to go back to school full-time at the age of 40. The point is rather that after reaching bottom, she realized that things could be different. It was the realization that she did not have to keep doing the same thing over and over, that she was not a prisoner of the past, which allowed her to rebuild her life and move in a different direction.

The challenges and disruptions we face at Kehilat Shalom are not as great as those faced by Kelly Parisi, but we too face the choice of being prisoners of the past or moving in a new, more positive, direction.

On Rosh Hashanah I quoted a provocative article by Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, which appeared in the Huffington Post. In his article “From the Cathedral to the Bazaar,” Rabbi Kula wrote that “the existing business models and organizational structures of mainstream religion are, as in many fields of meaning-making today (journalism, film, and music), increasingly unsustainable. Fewer and fewer Americans are getting religion in the cathedrals. They are getting what they need to get their spiritual/meaning-making job done in the bazaar, which has a very different model of authority and hierarchy, has very limited barriers of entry and far more choices, and which tends to be a user-friendly and open source environment.”

I want to explore that statement a little bit and what its implications are for us as we ponder our future. The comparisons to journalism, film, and music are apt. They are all, as Rabbi Kula puts it, fields of “meaning-making.” They help us make sense of our lives and sustain us through our times of joy and sorrow. And all of these fields are going through a radical restructuring.

People are still interested in music, but the advent of the Internet, mp3 players and file-sharing means that people, certainly people younger than I, no longer buy CDs.  Tower Records and Borders are out of business and Sam Goody became FYE and makes its money mostly from video games. So musicians and producers need to figure out new ways of still being paid for the music they create, and music retailers have to figure out how to stay in business. But it would be a mistake to think the financial realignment of the music industry means people aren’t interested in listening to or creating music anymore.

The same for journalism. People are certainly still interested in news. But the rise of 24 hour cable networks and the Internet have meant fewer people rely on the daily newspaper as their main source of news. We lived here six weeks before we even subscribed to a newspaper, which we get as much for the comics and the crossword as for the news. Because my primary source of news is Google news which I look at every morning as soon as I wake up.

Film, too, faces economic challenges. Fewer and fewer people see films in movie theaters; more and more see them at home as DVDS -- bought, rented, or pirated -- or “On Demand” through their cable or satellite tv service. The advent of Youtube and other similar services have made it easier for a filmmaker to get known, but how do you make money off of someone watching your movie on Youtube? Youtube has started experimenting with pay per view options but it remains to be seen how this will work out.

Which brings us to the business model of the synagogue, which is actually not very different than that of most churches. A family chooses to join a congregation based on whatever factors make sense to them. The location is convenient, they like the clergy, they like the building, they agree with its ideology, their friends are members there, it confers status, they like the religious school. There is a difference between synagogues and churches in that synagogues have annual dues while churches have an offering on Sunday. But the difference looms larger to Jews than it actually is. Most churches set an expected level of annual giving which generally is not too different than what synagogues charge in dues, and they manage to keep track. It’s not, contrary to what you may believe, a question of putting a buck or two in the collection plate; families pledge an annual amount that is generally based on their income. The main difference is that synagogues tend to have a fixed amount per family, though of course those who can afford more often give more and those who can’t afford full dues can ask for an abatement, whereas in churches each family decides for itself what it will give based on its income and church guidelines. But a recent survey conducted by the Forward newspaper shows that churches and synagogues of similar demographics tend to raise almost identical amounts of money per capita from their members in either dues or annual giving. Indeed, church members generally give a little bit more per family than synagogue members.

As I’ve already indicated, one of the necessary ingredients in any attempt at change is the belief that change is possible. This is especially difficult in the case of synagogues as there is an unspoken assumption that the synagogue as it exists today is what has “always” been. But in fact, the American synagogue does not resemble what existed in “the old country”, wherever that was, nor do today’s synagogues much resemble those which existed 100 years ago.
The earliest stage of the American synagogue was the immigrant synagogue. It simply transplanted what had been known in the Old Country. The institution was pretty much the same. It was an island of familiarity in a sea of strangeness.

          Stage two is called by historians the “ethnic synagogue.” It was made up mostly of the children of immigrants and it played a dual role. It was a place of ethnic solidarity but it was also a vehicle for Americanization. Sermons were in English rather than in Yiddish, and prayers were said in English as well as in Hebrew. Thus, the synagogue was an Americanized and Americanizing institution while still being a place of ethnic identity and solidarity.

          Stage three is the synagogue-center, starting generally in the years shortly after the Second World War. Jews had arrived; they were increasingly accepted in general society as anti-Semitism, while not disappearing, decreased significantly. They were more prosperous than before. Religiously, Judaism was increasingly accepted as one of the “three major faiths” and no important civic ceremony could be held without a rabbi as well as a priest and minister to give the invocation or benediction. While immigrant and even ethnic synagogues tended to be modest buildings, stage three synagogues were larger and were usually located in prominent, visible locations. They were meant to make a statement to Jew and Gentile alike about Jewish prosperity, permanence, and being a proud part of the American mix. They were much more than just shuls; they were centers of culture, of education, and a social center for the Jewish commmunity. As a rule, the space devoted to social and educational activities was much larger than that devoted to prayer. Synagogue-centers were also, largely, child-focused. Adults dropped their kids off for Hebrew school or youth group, but aside from High Holiday services rarely went inside themselves, except for family services and life cycle events in which their kids or their friend’s kids were taking part. And for the most part, worship was pretty passive. The rabbi called the pages, led the English readings, and gave the sermon. The cantor sang and taught the boys their Bar Mitzvah portions. Usually, both of them wore clerical robes. There were few opportunities for men to participate actively in leading services, and no opportunities at all for women to do so, except on Sisterhood Sabbath when they might lead the Friday night service.

The fourth stage of the American synagogue is known as the “synagogue community.” It differs from the “synagogue center” in that it is less formal, more diverse, more participatory and more focused on social action. Kehilat Shalom is very much a synagogue community. But in its organizational and financial structure it is quite traditional. It is a membership-based organization with dues and a board and a building and so on.

As I’ve shown in my talk on Rosh Hashanah, even the synagogue community will probably be less and less viable over the coming years and decades. As more and more of us have multiple identities, the idea that one particular place of worship is going to be someone’s main spiritual home, and in order to have that spiritual home he or she is expected to fork over two thousand dollars a year plus a building fund pledge -- that idea is going to be harder and harder to sell. Whatever our new business model will be, it will have to figure out a way to serve those who may wish to dabble in Judaism while also exploring other spiritual traditions. It will have to figure out a way to welcome those who consider themselves part Jewish or somewhat Jewish or “Jew-ish”. These folks will be happy to support the institution, just as people expect to pay for the yoga classes and Reiki treatments and meditation courses they take. Our model is going to have to be much more “pay as you go” and less dues-dependent, as many of the people the synagogue serves may not even be members. Of course there will always be the possibility that some of these dabblers and blenders and benders may ultimately choose Judaism as their sole spiritual path and wish to become members, but if that is presented up front as the direction in which we want people to move, we are going to fail. The goal will have to be providing ways for people to make their lives more meaningful, not convincing people to join our synagogue.

Clearly we face challenges as a community. Some of them are of our own making, but many are not. We cannot change the demographic realities of Montgomery Village or the sociological realities of American society as a whole. But we can bemoan them and become prisoners of them, or we can respond to them in bold and creative ways.

The Piaseczna Rebbe, known as the “Esh Kodesh” or “Sacred Fire”, was the Chasidic rabbi of Warsaw before and during the Holocaust. He tells a story which illustrates the point I am trying to make. It is the story of a beggar who had a dream that he would become a king. Now you must understand that in Chasidic stories dreams are of tremendous significance, because they are God’s way of communicating with us. Now most of us, if we dreamed that we would soon become a king, would be pleased. But this beggar was sorely troubled, scared, and pleaded with God not to make him a king. Why was the beggar so afraid of fulfilling his destiny?
This is why the beggar was so terrified. He said to himself, “As it is, it is all that I can do to knock on enough doors in a day to beg enough money to feed myself, my wife, and my two children. If I become a king, I will now be responsible for the welfare of thousands and thousands of people. How in the world will I ever be able to knock on enough doors to beg enough money to take care of so many?”

You see, the beggar in our story was such a prisoner of “the way things are” that he could not imagine a world in which he did not have to go from door to door to beg for his sustenance. The only difference between his current situation and being a king was that he would simply have to knock on more doors.

The main theme of this period of the year is “teshuva.” It is such a rich word because it has so many meanings. Repentance, yes. Turning, returning, changing, and even answering. And let me suggest another word: response – indeed, the type of Jewish legal writing known in Hebrew as a “teshuva” is called in English a “responsum.” The shofar call can startle us, can wake us up, and can rouse us from our slumber – if we will let it. Will we, like the beggar in the Piaseczna rebbe’s story, be prisoners of a world we imagine could not be any different than it is today? Or will we, like Kelly Parisi, respond to life’s challenges in bold and creative ways? The choice is ours alone. Shana tova.