Sunday, February 26, 2012

Clothes Make the Jew

Parshat Tetzaveh
Shmot 27:20 - 30:10
9 Adar 5772 / March 2-3, 2012
Say Yes To The Dress

by Rabbi Dan Horwitz, MH Mid-Western Regional Director and Organizational Chaplain

In this week’s portion, Tetzaveh, we learn about the sanctification of Aaron and his sons as priests, as well as the various priestly garments. The High Priest in particular had special vestments, including a headplate, special robe, and a breastplate with magical powers, among others. Without wearing their special garb, any actions taken by the priests were invalid.
There is no question that how we dress in society matters. Our outfits often reflect the way we want others to perceive us, if not the way we perceive ourselves. The clothes we wear have the ability to make us feel sexy, to make us feel fat, and can convey our social class and/or standing. We without question judge others whose fashion choices differ from our own, and often label them as a result (e.g. “hipsters,” “hippies,” “goths,” etc.).
Cultural norms have changed over the years, in many ways making us a much less formal society. Back in the day, you might need a jacket and tie in order to get into elite places. Now, the request is: “please, no sneakers or baseball hats.”
Jewish communal gatherings, be they charity dinners or High Holiday services, often become a competition to see who is wearing the more expensive / brand name designer clothing. This sense of competition has trickled down to our Jewish private schools, which are increasingly requiring students to wear uniforms, in order to protect those whose families are not as wealthy from feeling inferior or being bullied by their wealthier, better-dressed classmates.
Counter to the school-uniform approach, which emphasizes homogeneity as a mechanism for combatting classism within the Jewish community, some Jewish institutions have adopted a “come as you are” mentality. In particular, campus Hillels, which desperately are seeking to get students into the door, will often share that any and all are welcome to attend their events, and they can come in pajamas if they’d like. Chabad is also well known for accepting attendees as they are, and as a result, seeing jeans-wearers at Friday night Chabad services is quite common (as opposed to major synagogues, where jeans wearers would be looked at funny and often would not be welcomed warmly by those in black tie optional attire). By emphasizing that their institutions welcome everyone, regardless of their clothing, the culture of those institutions has changed, and those who attend the various programs do so with a sense of openness to those who may be dressed differently than they are.
There is admittedly tension in determining how we as Jews should dress in various situations (and we’re not even going to touch on modesty this week, which traditionally plays a large role in dictating Jewish attire).
Fortunately, we can look to the ancient priests for guidance. Just as without wearing their special garb any actions taken by the priests were invalid, so too can our own actions be rendered invalid if we are not dressed for the occasion. The way we dress can eliminate our ability to meaningfully engage with and be respected by the community. In particular, given that communal leadership is often comprised of those who have a significant life experience and tend to value more formal interactions, for young adults hoping to gain an audience, dressing the part is an important first step.
When have you felt overdressed? When have you felt underdressed?
When have you felt unwelcome due to what you were wearing?
This week, take some time to reflect on how you dress in various situations, and what that dress conveys.
Our organizations need to be welcoming, and should encourage a “come as you are” mentality. So too, individuals accepting invitations to attend organizational events should do so with the understanding that they may need to part with a piece of their individuality in order to truly be welcomed as part of a community.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Symbols we Carry

Parshat Terumah
Shmot 25:1 – 27:19
2 Adar 5772 / Feb. 24 – 25, 2012

The Symbols we Carry
by Jonathan Morgan, MH Portland

I wouldn’t exactly say that (on the surface) Terumah is the most action packed parashah. The summary is simple... Terumah is mostly a technical instruction manual on how to build the mishkan. Wood, poles, cubits of fabric...but the larger picture is rather beautiful when taken in context. The Israelites have the 10 commandments at this time and they need to house a portable way. It accompanied the Israelites on their journey, and once erect and assembled in the center of their camp, the mishkan (tabernacle) contained the Holy of Holies. As a side note, I found it interesting that just as creation in B’raisheet took six days, the construction of the mishkan is found in six sections. When you dissect the parashah even more, this message of a second creation becomes even more inspiring because its theme is the creation of peoplehood.

The receiving of the 10 commandments was an open interaction with G-d, and the construction and use of the mishkan was a concealed compact version. It was their emblem of the covenant with G-d and it got me thinking about our symbols in our lives. Israelites had the mishkan, and our emblems are Star of David necklaces, books, and mezuzot. These are the things we take with us on our journey to remind us of our brit, just as the mishkan did in the days of old.

Terumah also features the introduction of the menorah. Aside from the obvious symbols of light, there is another hidden message during the fabrication of the menorah from the description and assembly instructions in the Torah. Basically Moses could not for the life of him construct a menorah from G-d’s description. (See Pashat Vayakel in a few weeks.) Bezalel instead was the one who could construct it properly. The lesson we learn here is that we all have our strengths and weaknesses, and we all bring something unique and irreplaceable to the table. No matter how impressive other people may seem, each individual person is a unique gift to humanity (even when compared to Moses). As Rabbi Bradley Artson, of the AJU, says, “the light of G-d’s love, justice, and concern can illuminate the world only through the individual light that we shine through our deeds, our communities, and our performance of the menorah of old, we can illuminate the world.”

Monday, February 13, 2012

Old Laws, Our Story

Parshat Mishpatim
Shmot 21:1-24:18
25 Shevat 5772 / Feb. 17 – 18, 2012

Old Laws, Our Story
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

This week’s Torah portion starts off with some laws that are hard to relate to and hard to swallow. The opening verses (Shmot 21:1-6) talk about owning a Jewish slave and the conditions of the slave going free, marrying, and term of service. It seems quite awful and as I learned more about the laws from Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Issac, France, 1040-1105) things got even more bizarre.

Here is what Rashi writes on these verses (paraphrased):
You can only own a Jewish slave on two conditions: (1) A Jew can sell themselves (we are talking about males here, but they come with their wife and kids if they have any) IF they are trying to get out of poverty, and, (2) The courts can sell a Jewish man IF the person was a thief and will pay off his dues for what he stole by the money made for the sale.

The verses teach that an enslaved Jewish man can be given a wife. The wife and children are property of the slave owner. In this case, the master can only force a man to marry a female slave IF it is the case of a thief sold by the court AND if that thief is ALREADY MARRIED TO A JEWISH WOMEN. So the female slave that is forced to marry and sleep with this Jewish male slave MUST be non-Jewish. If the male Jewish slave is NOT married before he is sold into slavery he cannot be forced to start a family with a non-Jewish slave. Why??

The Torah does not want to entice any Jew into remaining a slave, so if you are single and then go into slavery and become a family man, you might want to stay a slave so you can remain with your non-Jewish wife and children. But if you already have a family out of slavery, you will NO WAY want to remain with your non-Jewish wife and kids in slavery. You will prefer to be a free man with your free Jewish wife and children. And if you do not prefer freedom, but you want to stay a slave – you have your ear pierced by a door post as a permanent symbol of your choice. (Of course, at the end of the 50 year Jubilee Cycle – you must go free, no ifs ands or buts about it!)

So, OMG! There is no way around these laws as completely insane from our current world view. The Torah world as explained by Rashi was a world where marrying multiple wives was encouraged! A world when the opposite of being a free person was becoming property and losing your entire personal agency. (They were forced to marry strange women, have children, and then forced to cut their ties with these people.) Where women were always treated as property and non-Jewish slaves were barely considered human.

According to Rashi, there are some points of compassion in these laws. A slave owner who buys a married Jewish slave, must provide for the entire family. A person who is a thief has the opportunity to give back to his community even if he cannot afford the punishment of his crime. (Perhaps there is something to the rehabilitation to criminals, keeping them as part of the community, which our current legal system is missing.) But it is really tough to make sense of these laws sometimes and they can be a huge turn off for folks that are poking around or teetering on the fence of Jewish involvement.

As we turn our sites to less of the Torah as narrative, and more as a rule book, I want to remind myself that this Torah is only the jumping point for what it means to live a Jewish life. We are allowed to, as generations have done before, to struggle with these laws, disagree with them, hate them, and break them. The words we read are a lot more nuanced when we bring in the oral tradition, Rabbinic commentary, and real life applicability. Taking in all of these levels is what learning Torah is really about. So laugh, cry, shout, and elate as we continue to learn our historical text. Make it your own!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Human Leadership?

Parshat Yitro
Shmot 18:1 – 20:23
18 Shevat 5772 / Feb. 10 – 11, 2012

Human Leadership?
by Barrie Schwartz, MH New Orleans

This week’s Parsha, Parshat Yitro, begins with Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law coming to visit Moshe and the People of Israel after they have crossed over the Red Sea. Yitro, observing how hard Moshe is working and micro managing the people of Israel, suggests that Moshe set up a system of judges. Moshe listens to his father-in-law and sets up a system within the People of Israel. Following this chapter, God gives the People of Israel the Ten Commandments. The first section of this week’s parsha is sandwiched between two very distinct and important moments for the people of Israel; the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the commandments at Mt. Sinai.

While reading the Parsha I could not help but analyze the juxtaposition in the chapters between people vs. God. Yitro’s suggestions both through words, and later Moshe’s actions bring up important points valuing human development and leadership. Yet, he and the People of Israel are constantly throughout the chapters praising God and the things that he has done for the People of Israel.

In the onset of the Parsha, Yitro says, “"Blessed be the Lord who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, yes, by the result of their very schemes against [the people]." (18:11-12) Yitro’s words are praising the Lord for single handedly delivering the People of Israel from the Egyptians.

Closely following Yitro’s praise for the Lord he observes Moshe’s leadership:

Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses' father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, "What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?" (18:14 – 15).

Yitro is constructively reviewing Moses ineffective leadership style. Here he acknowledges the power of all people, and the fault in acting alone. Is this the earliest sign of leadership consulting? Why is it important that Moshe act as an effective leader if God alone will always fix the situation that the People of Israel are in?

Yitro continues with his advice:

Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow. You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. If you do this — and God so commands you — you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied." (Exodus, 18:20 – 24).

It is here that the system of judges is set up. Moses cannot act alone as a messenger between the People of Israel and God. People need to work together in order to create a functioning and orderly community. Yet, before Yitro there was no effective way for Moshe to communicate to everyone. Also, it is important that chronologically Yitro’s advice happens before the Ten Commandments are given to the People of Israel.

Yitro’s advice, as well as the relationship between people and God, applies to the modern world. If the Jewish people acted as if God would take care of all things, would we be where we are today? Human initiative, community, and proper leadership allow us to function in today’s modern world. Individual Jews have the power to think about God’s relationship and role in the universe. Individuals and communities need to find systems that work for them.

The Parsha ends with Moses calming the fears of God that the People of Israel have, “Moses answered the people, ‘Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray.’ So the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was. It is with this ending sentiment the People of Israel are left with before they receive the Ten Commandments - that the fear of God should forever be with them as to not stray. This ambiguous statement leaves room for human leadership, innovation, and society. Yet, we must always have God in our minds as we set up our own systems. To me this sentiment leaves loose ties and confusion, what do you think?