Friday, November 15, 2013

A Name Change - A New Journey

As a rabbi, I’m blessed to be invited to be a part of some of the most meaningful and holy moments of people’s lives.  This week, I took part in a number of conversions as part of a Beit Din, (a Jewish ‘court’) a group of three rabbis who serve as witnesses and overseers to the conversions (the other two rabbis were my colleagues and friends Rabbi Michael Singer and Rabbi Leonard Zucker).  This week, we supervised the conversion of one of our young congregants, Franki Nasetti.  Let me wish a hearty mazal tov to Jon, Eve, and Danielle Nasetti as welcome Franki to the Tribe!  

After the children underwent conversion, we sat with two women in their 20’s who wished to convert.  As part of a conversion, we ask the conversion candidates to write essays about their journeys to Judaism, how the our tradition and way of life is more appropriate than their previous religion, how they identify to Israel, world Jewry, the local Jewish community, and their synagogue community, and more.  Learning about their journeys to our people truly inspired me.  Both came from religious Christian backgrounds and the journey has not been easy on their families, but they persevered and joined our people knowing that there are certainly struggles involved with being a Jew.  There were two moments in particular that moved me:  the first was when the conversion candidates read the Kabalat Ol Mitzvoth, the formal declaration that affirms their commitment to God’s mitzvoth.  During the declaration, one of the women’s voice cracked and tears came streaming down her face.  I could tell that there was so much emotion and feeling as she finally said these words.  It was the culmination of her journey, and her rebirth into a new person.  The Talmud says that someone who converts to Judaism is like a baby reborn.  Of course, newborns need names, so these women chose their own new names, and explained their choice to us with pride. 

At our Text Messages class this week, we read about the story of Yaakov and his name change.  First, off, let’s revisit the name Yaakov and see why he received this name.  In Genesis 25:26, we read about the birth of Yaakov and Esav:  “And after that his brother came out, and his hand was holding Esav’s heel, and he called his name Jacob.”  One interpretation for the name Yaakov is that it comes from the Hebrew word, ‘akev, which literally means ‘heel’.  In other words, he is known as a person who constantly nipping at the heels of others.  He is not thought of as a leader so he has to constantly grab for leadership.  Up until now, Yaakov lives in the shadow of his brother, and now, in our parashah, he is finally ready to confront this part of him.  After Yaakov struggles with the angel and prevails, the angel asks him, “What is your name?”  Of course, the angel knew his name, but, in my opinion, he was challenging Yaakov as if to say, “Who are you really deep down?  Have you changed along the way?  Are you ready to be someone different?”  Yaakov gives him a literal answer – “Yaakov”, but the angel tells him, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

Rashi comments: 

“It shall no longer be said that the blessings came to you through trickery (Akvah) and deceit, but with nobility and openness…”

We see here that Yaakov has not only had a name change, but a personality change and a change in destiny.  Dr. Richard Elliot Friedman, a modern Bible scholar whose commentary we use in our Text Message class, states,

“There is little character development in Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, or Rebekah, all of whom remain basically constant figures through the stories about them.  But Jacob changes, and the matter of deception is intimately related to that development.  As Esau points out, Jacob’s very name connotes deception:  to catch.  And Jacob starts out as a manipulator.  But Jacob is changed after his experience in Mesopotamia.  He has been the deceiver and the deceived…God blesses him in a remarkable etimology/etymology:  “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (yisra-el, understood here to mean ‘he struggles with God’) because you’ve struggled with God and with people and were able. 

Being a child of Israel, a Jew, is not easy.  Before someone converts to Judaism, before they become a member of Bnai Israel, we ask them:  are you sure you want to do this?  We have a long history of persecution.  You may be safe here and now, but we cannot guarantee that this will be the case in the future.  More than physical safety, being a Jew is also a great struggle – are you ready to begin this struggle?  In both cases, the candidates replied with confidence – Yes, we are ready! 
In our class, we debated the meaning of the pasuk of struggling WITH God.  Is it struggling with God, meaning against God, or struggling WITH God, meaning, together.  I think it is both – sometimes we struggle against God, and almost all the time we struggle together WITH God against adversity. 

The new Jews we brought into this world affirmed my belief in our vision statement: we journey, together, on a path to holiness.  This is what makes being a part of a kehillah kedoshah, a holy congregation, and holy nation so meaningful and vital – we need to journey together because it helps us overcome the struggle. 

This is what it means to be a child of Israel – to embrace this struggle WITH God. 
My blessing for us all is that we do not why away from struggle, but embrace it.  That we continue to journey together because we seek a holy path.  My blessing is that we take on more mitzvoth because they tie us to God, and that we support each other through our journeys in life. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David Baum

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What Makes A Man/Woman?

What Makes A Man/Woman?

At our License to Chai (teen education) class on Wednesday night, we discussed the recent controversy regarding the Miami Dolphins, bullying/harassment (and the complexity of the situation), and being a bystander.

For background on this story, and please read this very interesting article and video on What Defines A Real Man In Sports

Ok, now that you have watched the video, and read the article, you can see that there are many issues at play here.  They revolve around dominating over the other, meeting violence with violence, and much more.

We see that the sports world is struggling with this issue, but what does our Jewish tradition have to say about what it means to be a 'Man'/'Woman'?

Here is a quote from the Ethics of our Fathers (2:6) that give us some insight:

ובמקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש
In a place where there are no 'men', strive to be a 'man'/'woman'

Seems like a simple quote, but there's more than meets the eye!  The text gets us to define the core of what it means to act like an Ish or Isha (Man or Woman).

We talked about the true heroes of the Bible - some who we thought were heroes because they were physically gifted, like Samson, and Shimon and Levi, but their physical gifts ultimately got them in trouble.  Samson's strength ultimately led to his death.  Shimon and Levi's revenge for their sister Dinah led to the deaths of all the males of an entire city, and led their father Jacob to say this to his two boys:

“You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.” Genesis 34:30

Is being a hero/heroine just about physical strength and violence?

Clearly, the answer is no.  We spoke about other heroes - heroes like Abraham and Sarah who welcomed strangers into their home and fed them, and who can teach us to welcome the new kid to our lunch table.

We spoke about Boaz who is described as a 'man of valor' (איש גיבור) who reaches out to Ruth, a stranger in his land with really no family, and shows her kindness and compassion.  It also showed how we can welcome other people into our friendship circles, and show compassion and kindness to those who are being picked on by bullies.

We learned about Elkanah, Hannah's husband, who shares in his wife's pain when she faces infertility and gives her love and support.

We learned about one of the most famous 'Bromances' in the Bible, between David and Jonathan, and the fact that men and women can show love, affection, and appreciation toward each other!

The teens shared their heroes to me who turned out to be their mothers and fathers rather than athletes and celebrities!

We learned that being a 'man'/'woman' means being brave and courageous; kind and compassionate; supportive and loving.

We ended class with this You Tube clip, with a different perspective on football, and true heroes who can teach us how to be better 'men' and 'women'.

The video really says it all doesn't it.  Fast forward to 2:40 and watch that again.  He admits, the play wasn't his idea, and he says, tearfully, "I never would have thought about that."  He goes on, "I went from being someone who mostly cares about himself and my friends to caring about everyone and trying to make everyone's day and everyone's life."  

It looks like those boys on the that football field, who showed themselves to be true 'men', could teach my beloved Miami Dolphins a lesson on what it takes to be a man.  

Friday, November 1, 2013

Shabbat Message - Halloween and other musings

As a child, Halloween was never a big holiday for our family.  In fact, I don't remember donning a costume and trick or treating, but I do remember stocking up on candy for the kids (and adults) in our neighborhood who would come around in costumes looking to fill up their bags with delicious treats.  I know that many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious leaders rail against the holiday every year, ordering their congregations to stay at home and turn off the lights to trick or treaters.  The main reason that many do not like this holiday is because the origin of Halloween is pagan (from a Celtic Harvest Festival).  But rather than list the reasons why a Jew should not celebrate Halloween (there are many reasons), I want to focus on how Halloween is similar to, and yet remarkably different than, another Jewish holiday:  Purim. 
There are some remarkable parallels between these two holidays!  On both holidays, those celebrating dress up in costumes, and both holidays revolve around candy.  On Halloween, people go to their neighbors' homes to 'take' candy or treats, but on Purim, we do just the opposite.  Rather than 'take' treats from our neighbors, we 'give' candy to our neighbors in the form of mishloach manot.  Halloween and Purim also have an interesting parallel - on both holidays, we allow people to our doorsteps, but on Purim, we go one step further - we bring people into our homes for an obligatory meal called a Purim Seudah, a Purim feast.  Both holidays achieve something that we very much need in Boca Raton, a land of gated communities:  it allows us to let our guard down and invite others into our lives.  This practice of welcoming guests (hachnasat orchim) should come second nature to us Jews, but often times, we fall short regarding this very important mitzvah.  These instincts of welcoming might be part of our history (i.e. Abraham welcoming guests into his tent), but we still must develop them and this takes time and practice.
On Monday and Tuesday, I attended a conference in New York City called Clergy 2.0:  Leading Through Relationship.  The conference was a collaborative effort through the Rabbinical Assembly and JOIN for Justice.  Close to fifty rabbis gathered to apply the methodology of community organizing to our rabbinates and communities.  These include building a culture of relationship, deepening relationship with others, developing new leaders, bringing Jewish values to the public square, and engaging our communities in social justice/Tikkun Olam.  
Of course, these practices are nothing new for me as I have been talking about building a relational or covenantal community for years!  I have given many divrei Torah about this these subjects, but I urge you to re-read a dvar torah I gave four years about the listening campaign we had at Shaarei Kodesh where we met with close to 100 of our congregants through a series of 'house meetings'.  
We plan on continuing our growth as a community that focuses on the depth of our relationships, on giving and sharing with each other, and connecting to God.  
I look forward to building deeper relationships with all of you this Shabbat.  On Friday, we'll begin with our First Shabbats program at 5:30 pm for our families with young children, followed by our We've Got The Beat Shabbat, our special drumming service, at 6:00 pm.  On Saturday morning, we'll be celebrating the bar mitzvah of Steve Blaine. 
For those of you who will be knocking on doors tonight, take some time to introduce yourselves to your neighbors before you 'take', and for those of you who are 'giving', make sure you do the same.  In this way, you will 'treat yourself' to an opportunity of welcoming others into your lives and hopefully building some new relationships.  I can't think of anything more Jewish than that! 

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi David Baum