Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Miracles in Our Places©

The Miracles in Our Places© 

 Parashat Ekev

Rabbi David Baum

It was the Wednesday, my fourth day at Camp Ramah Darom.  I came to Darom on Erev Rosh Hodesh Av, which is arguably the saddest month of the year.  During the month of Adar, our joy increase, but in Av, our joy decreases.  In order to show this decrease in joy during the first nine days of the month of Av, we do not drink wine or eat meat.  Now, abstaining from wine at a summer camp is not very difficult, but abstaining from meat can be a challenge for many (my apologies to our vegetarians and vegans in our congregation).  Luckily, for the Orthodox Carnivores at camp, there are some opportunities for taking a break from our vegetarian meals.  There's a little known exception to the no meat for nine days rule:  One can eat meat if he or she is part of a siyyum, the completion of a holy book.

Wednesday is always barbecue day at Camp Ramah Darom (and it was also Yom Sport or Color War), so a number of staff members came together and studied Mishnah Berachot in order to complete the book.  There are nine chapters in the book, the eight people studied, but the entire camp studied the ninth chapter together.  I happened to be sitting with Avi's eidah, the youngest eidah in camp, Nitzanim.  This was Avi's first summer as a hanich, a camper, at Ramah Darom.  They asked us all to pair up, and so my chevrutah/learning partner was Avi.  I was thrilled...I cannot say the same for Avi.

I want to read you the Mishnah we were chosen to study together, from the 9th chapter of Mishnah Berachot.

הָרוֹאֶה מָקוֹם שֶׁנַּעֲשׂוּ בוֹ נִסִּים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, אוֹמֵר בָּרוּךְ שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה

He/She that sees a place where miracles were done for Israel should say, “Blessed [is God] who did miracles for our ancestors in this place.”

So today, I want to explain the great miracles that I experienced at camp, that you should probably know about yourselves, and how we can bring these miracles with us to our lives and how we do Judaism.

Miracle 1:

Back to Wednesday - As we read the mishnah together, I got a little emotional – here we are, in this place, and were it not for this place, it is likely that Avi nor his siblings would not have been created.  Not only is he alive, but we are studying Torah together!  And trust me, getting Avi to study Torah with me is a miracle on its own.

The idea of the miracle of their lives got a hold of me, and I was lost in the moment.  Avi didn't get it – what is so miraculous about this place, and Abbah, why are you getting emotional?!?

What's really interesting is that this mishnah is directly related to our Torah portion.  The mishnah is all about Berachot, blessings.  We say blessings after we experience something in this world, not just food or drink, but the wonders of nature and experience.

וְעַתָּה֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מָ֚ה יְי אֱלֹקיךָ שֹׁאֵ֖ל מֵעִמָּ֑ךְ כִּ֣י אִם־לְ֠יִרְאָה אֶת־יְי אֱלֹקיךָ
And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the LORD your God... (Deuteronomy 10:12)

The Rabbis in the Talmud interpreted this to mean that one should say at least 100 blessings a day from the hebrew word Mah, what, which they turn into Meah, 100.

Experiencing this miracle, and noting it out loud, while annoying Avi, was an incredible moment for me.  And so, I thought about how I can do more of this with him – to say blessings for daily occurrences together.  To recognize the miracles that surround us on a daily basis, even if it annoys the people around us!

Which brought me to my next miracle:  Miracle 2.

It was during my time at Ramah when the camp welcomed a number of families as part of Darom's family camp.  These were people whom I had grown up with in youth group and spent time with at Ramah in the late 90's – you know, last century.  Some of us kept in touch, some of us live in the same cities, but most of went off on our own separate paths.  The incredible thing was that most of us married people we met on staff at Camp Ramah.

Intermarriage and the Conservative movement has been written and spoken about extensively this summer, but here I saw something interesting.

So what is the miracle here?!?  There is a famous midrash where a Roman aristocrat woman and a famous rabbi have an intellectual debate – she says, if your God is so mighty and created the world, what has He been doing since creation?  He answers – he's been matching up couples.  The Roman woman laughs at him – are you kidding me!  I can do that!  – she tries to match her slaves up, 1000 male slaves and 1000 female slaves.  The next day, they come back to her, one with a black eye, the other with a busted lip, another with a cracked skull – all asking to be released from their marriages. The woman went back to the rabbi and said, "There is no god like your God, and your Torah is true."

The rabbis answer – arranging marriages that work is akin to the splitting of the Red Sea.

The wise rabbi states, splitting the red sea, no problem!  Getting couples together, now that's a miracle.

Steve Cohen, the famous sociologist, wrote recently that Ramah and other intensive Jewish and Zionist programs are particularly important, but not just for the reasons you might think.  In an interview, he said the following:

“Ramah and such camps are among the best ways to assure that our young Jews meet and marry other Jews, especially now that intermarriage is being undertaken so widely. Because of their Ramah friendships, they marry fellow campers, or they participate in strong Jewish social networks that make romantic referrals.  Many educationally intensive Jewish camps, those with a strong Jewish mission, accomplish similar goals. Specifically, Ramah bestows Jewish cultural capacity and the ability to function as educated Jews in the real world. It also satisfies the need for meaning that so many of our young people want and need, and connects them to a strong Jewish community for years beyond their time at camp — often for a lifetime.”

In a sense, perhaps we can say that God is working through these Jewish summer camps – creating matches that last a life time.

Miracles do not happen by God alone – we, human beings, are a part of that miracle making.  As we saw in the story, two Jews marrying in an open world can be a miraculous act, but we know it doesn't happen without our help and support.

My humble ask is that we try and change the conversation that we are having about intermarriage – that if we want to promote in-marriage, we should think about sending our young people to work on staff at Camp Ramah and other immersive Jewish experiences over the summer.  Internships may look good on a resume and might make you some more money in the future, but finding a nice Jewish boy or girl to spend your life with is truly priceless.

And finally, Miracle #3 – when your child follows in your footsteps.

As parents, we desperately want our children to love the same things we love, whether it is a sports team, or certain foods, or places, but especially God and Judaism.  It is truly an elusive thing – but sometimes, miracles do happen.

On the last Shabbat at camp, Avi woke up and was ready to leave – it's been a long time away from home, a month, and he was ready to go home.  I miss Imma, and my bed, and I hate camp.  Ok, so my heart skipped a beat, but I took a break and said, we will talk tonight about you leaving early, how about that?  I knew what was coming, Havdallah, but would the magic of Havdallah work on Avi?

Sure enough, as we were swaying in a circle together reciting the words of the prayers, Avi and the rest of his bunk broke down in tears – the shoe was on the other foot!  Now he was crying!  He told me, “I don't want to leave!  I don't want to leave my friends, I love camp.  I want to stay at Camp Ramah!”  The music was loud, but I whispered the following words:

בָּרוּךְ שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה

Blessed is God who made did miracles for our ancestors in this place!  

He drank the kool aid – he experienced something he couldn't quite explain...
And my final lesson that I learned is – sometimes, love takes time.  We try and instill these loves with our kids, sometimes it works right away, sometimes it never works, and sometimes it takes time.  Don't give up – share the things you love with your children, even if it annoys them.

Three miracles, three lessons:

  • Recognize the miracles that surround us on a daily basis, articulate them with our words, even if it annoys the people around us!
  • The miracle of connection in a Jewish context – let's explore how we can increase these
  • Share the things you love with your children, even if it annoys them

May we all experience miracles in the days, weeks, months and years ahead – together.  Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

How Good Are Our Tents? The Kotel Controversy

How Good Are Our Tents? - The Kotel Controversy
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
Parashat Balak 5777/2017

Jewish unity can be a fleeting thing as we saw in these last weeks.

The kotel compromise officially began in 2013 – took three years to get everyone on the same page, and in a day, it’s all gone.  (for a basic overview of the Kotel compromise, please read: Western Wall prayer fight ends with historic compromise

Due to the outcry from the Jewish community outside of the land of Israel, the government has delayed any changes for six months. 

Now we have six months, so what now? 

Before we start planning for the future, I would like to look to the past.  Today, I want to focus on two things: 

1.     Balaam’s famous blessing, Mah Tovu
2.     An adaptive solution to the issue of pluralism

Balaam, the infamous non-Israelite prophet, is ordered to curse the Children of Israel by a King Balak who was fearful of these ex-slaves from Egypt.  However, every time Balaam tries to curse them, he blesses them. What makes Balaam such an interesting character is in his name itself – the rabbis took his name apart, Bil – Am – literally means without a nation.  This is a prophet who doesn’t understand how a nation works.  How can a people stick together as they grow and become diverse? 

He goes up on a mountain, sees the children of Israel, and says the famous words:

Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael

How good or fair are your tents Jacob, your dwell places Israel!

There is something quite deep to these words. First, what was the good that Balaam saw regarding the tents?  The Talmud fills it in through a story:  

Bava Batra 60a
“And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel dwelling tribe by tribe; and the spirit of God came upon him” (Numbers 24:2). The Gemara explains: What was it that Balaam saw that so inspired him? He saw that the entrances of their tents were not aligned with each other, ensuring that each family enjoyed a measure of privacy. And he said: If this is the case, these people are worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on them.

What could this mean?  Well, it is a message of privacy and respect.  They were a people, but each family had their own sense of identity.  They were united, but not uniform. 

And the next question is, what were the tents?  In the Talmud, the rabbis say the tents and dwelling places become the synagogues and study halls of the people of Israel.  As we have grown and moved around the world, our synagogues and study halls have become even more diverse. 

So if we zoom out, what did Balaam see?  He saw that a nation could only be a nation if it gives each other room and respects how they worship in their own dwelling places.  We are related, but at the same time, we are different. Pirkei Avot wisely states:  “One who says, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours" is a chassid (pious person). And one who says "What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine" is wicked.”

In the Diaspora, we have done a decent job of respecting one another’s dwelling places, our ways of worship.  In our community, we can see this through our emphasis on Jewish unity.  In Israel, this is not the case.  In Israel, the Rabbanut, the Ultra-Orthodox dominated state sanctioned rabbinate, insists on looking in everyone’s tent.  Judaism is what they say it is – your tent has to be just like our tent.

The truth is, we are never going to change their perspective – but they are not the majority of the country.  The majority of the country isn’t religious at all – 80% are secular, and most of them know nothing about the Reform and Masorti movements.  The Kotel controversy dominated our news here in the Jewish press, and it even made it to the cover of the New York Times, but it did not make it to one newspaper cover in Israel. 

I have been learning about the practice of adaptive change – often times, we look at problems and offer technical fixes.  For example, you have high blood pressure, so what do you do?  You take medication to lower it.  This might solve the problem technically, but the healthiest thing to do, which takes longer, is to change your lifestyle to eat healthy, get more exercise and lower your stress.  The adaptive challenge prevents the issue from recurring. 

The adaptive challenge here is not the ultra-Orthodox, rather, it is the 80% of Israelis who don’t know about us. 

So I want to offer my solution to Jewish unity, which will take a lot longer than the kotel compromise:

A reverse birthright trip – bring young Israelis to America to work in Reform and Conservative communities.  This system already exists to a certain degree.  The Jewish Agency in Israel sends shlichim, Israeli emissaries, to Jewish communities outside of Israel in various settings.  The Jewish Agency says, “our shlichim bridge the gap between Jews of different backgrounds and Israel, increase Jewish awareness and pride within your community and promote an understanding of Israel and its ideals.”  One of my life long friends is an Israeli shaliach who came to work in America for a summer from Israel.  We worked at Camp Ramah Darom together, and I will never forget when we first met, in our tiny shared room in a cabin.  He didn’t speak much English, and I didn’t speak much Hebrew, so we taught each other.  We taught each other much more than Hebrew, but our unique Jewish backgrounds.  He came from a Moroccan Jewish family, I came from a European Jewish family.  We were different, and yet, so similar.

When I visited Israel, I knew I always had a place to stay and a family to spend the holidays with, and vice versa.  Of course, I had many Israeli friends from various years at Ramah.  When I visited Israel, I not only visited the country, but I connected with real families.

(Erez and I in Jerusalem after a decade of not seeing each other!)

Can you imagine if we welcomed thousands hundreds of Israeli young men and women from secular backgrounds to work in non-Orthodox synagogues and schools?   We need a dose of Israel and Hebrew for our children, these young Israelis want an experience outside of Israel for a year to make some money and travel.

It would be an incredible win-win!

The kotel controversy is much larger than the kotel – the issue is not just about the synagogue that the Israeli government insists the kotel is – rather, it is about the acknowledgment of different expressions of Judaism in the Jewish state.  It is about Jewish religious freedom in our only state. 

I want to end with a good story that just happened:

At the Maccabiah opening ceremony in Jerusalem on Thursday evening, a Jewish Canadien Avi Steinberg, was called to the stage by Israeli actress Noa Tishby, who was emceeing the event. “I’m very excited to be here,” said Steinberg. “What makes this even more special for me is that my girlfriend, Rachel Dixon, the love of my life, who just completed her conversion to Judaism, today for the first time landed in Israel.”  Avi is in T-shirt and shorts – and Noa calls Rachel up to the stage.  Avi drops on one knee and proposes to her.  She says yes, meanwhile, they are in front of 10,000 people!  Noa goes on to say, “it would be our honor if you guys would actually get married right here, right now. Will you do it?”  And out comes a white dress, a hupah, and their rabbi, Rabbi  Avi Poupko, from Canada.  And there they are, in the Jewish dwelling place, their first home, the huppah, surrounded by the Jewish people, men and women sitting together, from different backgrounds. 

Rabbi Poupko commented on the moment

“Given the Israeli government’s recent decisions concerning the conversion law, it was a beautiful and reassuring sight to see a new convert be so embraced by tens of thousands of Jews from all across the world…I think that [this ceremony] expresses the true Jewish spirit as far as how we are to relate to individuals who have chosen to tie their fates with the Jewish people.”

It’s a nice story, but unfortunately, if the couple were Israeli, their marriage would be not be accepted in Israel.  If they lived in Israel, Avi’s wife would be not be considered Jewish because Rabbi Poupko, although Orthodox, is not a state sanctioned rabbi, and their wedding would not be recognized by Israel either.  A Conservative rabbi friend posted a picture of himself performing a wedding in Red Square in Moscow saying, “Just had the privilege of conducting a beautiful wedding for a beautiful couple under a chuppah overlooking the Kremlin. Who would have thought that the joyous voices of Jewish bride and groom and the sheva brachot would resound through Red Square? The forces of history were in evidence today. Ironic that I must pray that some day Jews in Israel will be as free to practice their religion as we are here in Russia, and have a wedding with the rabbi of their choosing.”

May we see a day soon when we have true freedom in Israel for all Jews, that we respect our tents so much that we welcome each other in, learning from each other but keeping our values and beliefs in tact. 

Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotech Yisrael -

Kein Yehi Ratzon. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Jewish Leadership is Much More Than A Game of Thrones©

Jewish Leadership is Much More Than A Game of Thrones©
Rabbi David Baum, Parashat Pinchas

It’s the middle of the summer, but #winterishere

What I mean by that is the new season of Game of Thrones is about to begin again. 

Let me begin by saying that this show is not for the young, and is graphic when it comes to sex and violence, and I do not give it my seal of approval, but then again, our holy document isn’t so tame, like in last week’s parashah Balak which ended with mass fornication only ending when a priest named Pinchas took a spear, and let me read you the exact words:  “stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly.”  Numbers 25:8

But people are obsessed with this series for many other reasons.  Game of Thrones is aptly named because that is essentially what it is - a series of leaders vying for a seat on the Iron Throne, to be the king or queen of the seven kingdoms. 

The throne was made by an infamous king who conquered the land and took the swords of all of his enemies, fusing them together to make a throne.

The author George RR Martin writes that according to legend (which he made up himself), the reason that the blades on the throne are sharp is so that no ruler should ever sit comfortably.  In this world, power is not given easily given away, but it is taken brutally. 

I bring this up because in our foundation document, the Torah, we read very little about a monarchy except in the book of Deuteronomy.  Moses has been the leader for a seemingly unending term - but all men must die, and Moses knows he is coming to the end of his life, and his turn as leader of the Israel. 

Knowing that he is about to die, Moses turns to God and asks him to appoint a successor:

Moses said to the Lord, “May the Lord, God of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Num. 27-15:17).

Rashi comments: “This is to tell the praise of the righteous – that when they are about to leave this world, they put aside their personal needs and become preoccupied with the needs of the community.”

Great leaders think about the long-term future. Like Moses, they are concerned with succession and continuity.  

God tells Moses to appoint Joshua, ‘a man in whom is the spirit’. He gives him precise instructions about how this transfer would occur: 

“Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand on him. Have him stand before Elazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. Give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him… At his command he and the entire community of the Israelites will go out, and at his command they will come in.” (Num. 27:18-21).

There are two major lines in this passage:
  • God asks Moses to physically lay his hand upon Joshua
  • God asks Moses to give some of his authority…

The Midrash explains what the laying of the hands signified: 

“And lay your hand on him – this is like lighting one candle with another. Give him some of your authority – this is like emptying one vessel into another.” (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:15)

Power and influence are often thought of as being the same kind of thing: those who have power have influence and vice versa. In fact, though, they are quite different. If I have total power and then decide to share it with nine others, I now have only one-tenth of the power I had before. If I have a certain measure of influence and then share it with nine others, I do not have less. I have more. Instead of one person radiating this influence, there are now ten. Power works by division, influence by multiplication.  Kings have power - prophets have influence - and Moses was both. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes the following comment: “A king had power. He ruled. He made military, economic and political decisions. Those who disobeyed him faced the possible penalty of death. A prophet had no power whatsoever. He commanded no battalions. He had no way of enforcing his views. But he had massive influence. Today we barely remember the names of most of Israel’s and Judah’s kings. But the words of the prophets continue to inspire by the sheer force of their vision and ideals. As the famous 19th century Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said: When a king dies, his power ends; when a prophet dies, his influence begins.”

When Moses the prophet lays his hands upon Joshua, the Hebrew words used are Samachta.  The concept of Smicha, when one rabbi would make another person a rabbi, came from this word.  When God tells Moses to “Give him some of your authority [me-hodecha]” this refers to the second role. It means, invest him with the power you hold as a king.

When Moses gives him some of his power, he diminishes part of himself.  But I wanted to focus on the first part, Simcha.  

When one rabbi, a leader in scholarship and law, makes another person a rabbi, what exactly do they give them when they place their hands on their head?  We often think that it is about giving power to someone else, but it isn’t - when we lay our hands upon someone, we give them the power of influence. 

Influence is like lighting one candle with another. Sharing your influence with someone else does not mean you have less; you have more. When we use the flame of a candle to light another candle, the first is not diminished. There is now more light in the world. 

Imagine you are looking at this scene, Moses and Joshua, two men, one placing his hand on the other - if we pan out, we see the entire people, and in them, we see us - the Or LaGoyim - the light unto the nations. 

Can a people survive without power?  The answer is complicated.  Our people’s political power was taken away 2,000 years ago when we lost self-rule in the land of Israel and were dispersed among the nations.  But in the last 2,000 years, our influence grew tremendously. 

And we not only survived under difficult circumstances, but we thrived, we began another phase of being - as influencers. 

Rabbi Reuven Hammer writes that the Jewish people, through the Torah, gave the world 14 truths that changed it for the better.  Let me share just a couple of them with you:  the concept of one God above nature; morality is God’s supreme demand on all human beings; the value of human beings - that human life is sacred; the equality of human beings - that we have a common ancestor; humanity has free will; the impoverished, the needy, and the stranger must be treated properly; and of course, the weekend - a day of rest for all - servants and animals included - everyone is entitled to the most elementary thing - time off. 

Being Jewish in the 21st Century, with a large focus on the modern state of Israel, has us squarely focused on power.  Without Jewish power, our fates are left to others, and the evidence of the Holocaust along with several other tragedies in the last 2,000 years is the evidence.  Ultimately, if a people do not have power, they cannot survive forever.  But if they do not have positive influence, well, what is the use of surviving? 

As a people today, we are arguably the most powerful than we ever have been, both in Israel and America.  For many Jews, power has become an obsession - we support Jewish organizations that bolster Jewish physical power, the body of Israel (not just the modern state, but the people of Israel around the world); but if we neglect the soul, the positive influence we have can be lost.  

We are in the midst of the three weeks that lead us to the 9th of Av, a day when we mark the end of our power, a day when we reflect upon the tragedies that have befallen us  because we lacked power, but it all began when we lost our soul, our positive influence, when we let boundless hatred, Sinat Chinam, overtake us. 

During these days, let us remember that power if vital, but influence is the light that makes us who we are.

Tips on Jewish Spiritual Parenting

Tips on Jewish Spiritual Parenting
by Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
From Brunch at the Park!  July 16, 2017
Text 1: Abundant blessings
חייב אדם לברך מאה ברכות בכל יום שנאמר
'A person must make one hundred ( meah) blessings each day, as it is stated
(דברים י, יב) ועתה ישראל מה ה' אלהיך שואל מעמך
(Deuteronomy 10:12), "And now Israel, what ( mah) does the Lord, your God, ask of you."

Why do you think it is important for us to say 100 blessings a day?
What do blessings do for you?
Try this:
  • Download the 'Sanctifull' App by the Rabbinical Assembly - https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/story/sanctifull
    • When you see a rainbow, look up the prayer and teach your children about it. The app is a great tool to mark everyday spiritual experiences with your families!
  • On Friday evenings at Shabbat dinner, go around and ask them what they were grateful for this week?
Text 2: Holiness at every opportunity
Barukh ata adonai elohenu melekh ha’olam, shehecheyanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higiyanu la’z’man ha’zeh Blessed are You Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this day.

What specific things do we learn from this prayer?
What does it teach us about the nature of time?
What can it teach us in this day and age?

Our task as parents – as historians of childhood – is to collect previous Shehechenyanu moments like wildflowers, gathering them into radiant bouquets. Reciting Shehecheyanu, we allow these moments to blossom into the blessings they are.” Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Michelle November

Try this: Whenever something new happens – for the first time or the first time that year; something Jewish or even something like when they ride their bike for the first time without training wheels; give your child a huge hug, look into their eyes, and recite the blessing.

Text 3: Set daily time
Deuteronomy 6:7
וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ וּבְשָׁכְבְּךָ וּבְקוּמֶךָ׃
You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

Try this: Use wake up time and bed time as opportunities for prayer and connection.

#LivePresent – Words of Torah from Rabbi David Baum on how we can 'live present' for ourselves and our families, and why it is so vitally important in our day and age.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Redeeming the Land - Reflections From Israel

Redeeming the Land©
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

Arguably, the oldest way that people gave to the building of the Modern state of Israel was through the blue pushkas (tzedakah/charity boxes) for the Jewish National Fund, or Karen Kayemet L’Israel.  What were we donating money for?  We thought – trees?  We were giving money to Israel, but what was Israel doing with the money? 

This week’s parashah, Behar-Behukotai, are the last parshiot of the book of Leviticus.  During this book, which was given at Sinai in a span of eight days after the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which is ownerless land in the wilderness, we read about the laws concerning the priests.  But it isn’t just the laws of the priests – this book contains the laws for the nation of priests, bnai Israel.  It’s a book of methods to attain holiness.  The focus is on people, but as we come to the end of the book, we now move to a different focus:  a focus on the land of Israel. 

But if we look even closer, we see that the laws that are given are also about how Jews attain holiness on the land – how we should act on the land.  The parashah begins with the commandments of the sabbatical and jubilee years, where our ancestors had to give the land a complete rest, shmittah, every seven years.  On the 50th year, the jubilee year, the land is released and given back to its original owners.  These laws were given in order to prevent perpetual slavery and a system where people lost ownership of the land.  The question is, who owns the land?  We famously read the following words in our parashah in Chapter 25:23-24:

וְהָאָ֗רֶץ לֹ֤א תִמָּכֵר֙ לִצְמִתֻ֔ת כִּי־לִ֖י הָאָ֑רֶץ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֧ים וְתוֹשָׁבִ֛ים אַתֶּ֖ם עִמָּדִֽי׃
But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.

וּבְכֹ֖ל אֶ֣רֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶ֑ם גְּאֻלָּ֖ה תִּתְּנ֥וּ לָאָֽרֶץ׃ (ס)
Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land.

What exactly do these verses mean?  Didn't we assume that the land is ours for the taking?  Why does God tell them that they are Gerim, strangers, on the land? 

Ibn Ezra, a famous Spanish commentator, says the following:  it is to teach us that we are like permanent refugees on the land.  The land is God's, not ours.  But the Ramban, another medieval commentator, adds, as long as the land is Mine (God's), it is your land as well. 

If it is God's land, we have a responsibility to the land, it is never fully owned by us, so we must provide for its redemption. 

What does redemption mean?  A farmer can understand the following verbs regarding land:  "irrigate" "fertilize", and "cultivate”.  But how does one "redeem" land? According to most biblical commentators, this verse is understood as mandating a loving Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. 

The work of the modern day redemption of the land of Israel began on the fourth day of the fifth Zionist Congress in Basel.  At the first Zionist Congress, the delegates debated establishing a fund to purchase land in Israel from the Ottoman Empire.  Theodore Herzl wrote the following after the first congress:  “Were I to sum up the Basle Congress in a word - which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly - it would be this: At Basle I founded the Jewish State.”  That was all well and good, and the idea of land ownership was popular, but no one put their money down on the table.  So on the fourth day of the fifth congress, Theodore Herzl rises to the podium and gives an impassioned plea for this land purchasing program:   "After striving for so many years to set up the fund, we do not want to disperse again without having done anything."  He proposes a fund called the Jewish National Fund (Karen Kaymeth L'Israel) and says the following:  "the fund shall be the property of the Jewish people as a whole."

In the spring of 1903 JNF-KKL purchased its first parcel of land: 50 acres in Hadera thus beginning the modern day redemption of the land. 

So the question is, why the trees?  I learned that answer on Neot Kedumim, a Biblical park in Israel founded in 1924.  We sat on a bench and stared into a valley – on one side, we saw land full of trees, but on the other side, we saw a barren hill.  Our tour guide explained the following:

There was an Ottoman rule that if one bought land, you had to show that you were going to actually use it.  If you did not show this within one year, the empire could take the land back without refunding your money. 

The early Zionists were not a large group.  Many Jews opposed the idea of Zionism, so the Zionists came up with an idea – let's plant trees on the barren land.  And this is how JNF got into the tree planting business. 

The question is, once the land was purchased, once the trees were planted, was the land redeemed? 

Redemption, Geulah, is a difficult term to comprehend.  When were Bnai Israel redeemed from slavery?  Did it happen the moment Pharaoh let us go after the plagues?  Did it happen after we crossed through the Sea of Reeds?  Did it happen when we entered the wilderness?  Did it happen when we received the Torah at Sinai?  Did it happen when we entered the land after the forty years of wandering in the Wilderness? 

Perhaps the answer is that, like Revelation, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, redemption is an ongoing process.  We never fully own the land, but we continue working to redeem the land through our actions. 

The idea that was born by Herzl during the fifth Zionist Congress the JNF, was just the beginning, and the work of the JNF continues today with every project they invest in.  During our four day trip, we saw the gradual acts of redemption:  forests planted, museums that were built to remember historical moments in Israeli history, like Ammunition Hill, the site of one of the pivotal battles of the Six Day War which led to the liberation of the old city of Jerusalem; settlements in the Green Line like Halutza which serves as a border between Egypt and Israel.  I stood at the Beit Knesset staring into the Sinai, just a mile away, a couple of months before, ISIS was there shooting rockets at the settlement which stands in Israel proper.  We sat and ate with the Rabbi Eli Adler, a leader in Halutza, who started his life over after he left Gush Katif in Gaza during the 2005 Disengagement.  He never lost hope for the redemption of the land of Israel. 

From there, we traveled to Be'er Sheva where we saw the JNF projects attempting to bring Israelis from the congested center of the country to the capital of the Negev in order to achieve David Ben Gurion's dream, to make the desert bloom.  Because of the work of JNF's work in funding jobs programs and historical sites (along with the Israeli government), Be'er Sheva is becoming a powerhouse of a city with a growing population.  In the north, the Galil, we visited the site of the Carmel Forest Fire Memorial – a site which honors the memory of the 44 Israeli firemen and police officers who were killed trying to stop the largest fire in Israeli history.  JNF is planting trees everyday to help rebuild what was destroyed.  It will take at least 35 years for the forests to return, but redemption doesn't happen in one day – it's a long process.  We met with HaShomer HaChadash, a volunteer organization dedicated to safeguarding the land in the Negev and the Galilee for farmers who are being attacked, their animals stolen, and their land desecrated by thieves.  The group started with one young man, Yoel Silberman, whose farm within the green line was almost sold because it was constantly being vandalized and their animals stolen.  One night, Yoel said enough is enough, and pitched a lookout tent on a hilltop, and, armed only with a flag of Israel and a passion for his homeland, stood watch, declared a Jewish presence and a claim to his land.  More young men followed him and now thousands of volunteers help their countrymen, and to build a connection to their land and history, something that has been forgotten by many of the youth of Israel. 

With each place we met, we heard one amazing and unbelievable story after another.

I want to take you back to Neot Kedumim, the valley where one side had trees, and other did was barren.  This land is governed by the Palestinian Authority.  The tour guide told us that planting trees for the sake of planting trees is not an Arab value.  They plant trees for produce, but why just plant trees for the sake of planting trees.  The question is, why are we still planting trees now that we own the land?  There are no Ottomans to answer to, so why the trees? 

The answer is, because of the words of this week's parashah:  we answer to God, Ki Li Ha'aretz, because the land is Mine, but we must constantly work to redeem the land. 

Trees are symbolic of what early Zionists wanted to prove to the world - our people have deep roots in this land, and we plant trees to remind us that we must continually plant seeds, and root ourselves to the land, not just through trees, but through projects that help us feel a greater sense of ownership over the land, projects that help not just Jews, but all the inhabitants of the land. 

As I left Israel, I could not figure out what I was more inspired by, the land or the Jews who worked every day to redeem the land in their own unique way.  I left Israel seeing that Herzl's dream is coming tree – if you will it, it is no dream. 

The redemption of our people and the land is not yet complete, may our generation inside and outside the land continue to engage in the task of redemption. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

A Law of Return For Judaism©

A Law of Return For Judaism©
Rabbi David Baum
Parashat BaMidbar, 5777/2017

About a decade ago, one of my classmates, a dear friend, asked us to compile a list of questions that will be most relevant for Jews in the 21st Century and beyond. There were many questions that came up – but let me ask you, what do you think are the most pressing questions for Jews in the 21st century?

The answer we collectively agreed upon was: Who will be counted as a Jew?

It comes down to a base question – who is counted among the Members of the Tribe, and who is not counted. In the past, the answer was easy – who is a Jew? But today, the answer is a little more complicated. I think its complicated because of the law of return – who gets to go to Israel.

Law of return, or ḥok ha-shvūt, which was expanded in 1970 from its original form in 1950 states, "The rights of a Jew under this Law and the rights of an oleh under the Nationality Law... are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew." Those who convert to Judaism through the rabbis of the Reform and Conservative movements outside of the land of Israel, and Orthodox rabbis inside and outside, are also included.

But should there be a law of return for Judaism? I want to address this today, but before that, I want to put things into context.

As we come to this new book of BaMidbar, we are confronted with this issue head on - who is counted. The Rabbis did not call this book In the Wilderness, rather, Sefer HaPikudim – the Book of the Census. Throughout the book, we will read a number of census, so many that it will become commonplace for us.

So who is counted in our parashah?

When God commands Moses to do so at the beginning of Parshat Bamidbar, only male Israelites over the age of 20 who are able to bear arms are considered. In the text, Moses is told to tally up kol adat b’nei yisrael, literally “the whole community of the Children of Israel.” But do able-bodied males over 20 years old represent the whole community? While adat is often translated as “community,” it can also refer to an “assembly, band, company, or faction,” hence only one segment of the larger population. We see that the term can be expanded - it’s not just men over 20.

Over this book, we'll be counting and counting the Bnai Israel. The question is, what was the count at Mount Sinai, who was counted?

I will never forget an encounter I had at a conference when I was younger. A guy came up to me and started talking to me like he knew me. He asked me about the Jewish community of Plantation, he called me by my name, and other things. It was an awkward moment because I'm thinking, “I've never met this guy in my life!” Finally, I got the courage to ask, how do you know these details about my life – I swear we've never met before? He answers, “first off, I read your name tag, but second, we have met before...at Sinai.

This guy knew something I didn't know: there are many sources in our tradition which state it was not just the souls of the slaves from Egypt who were at the revelation at Sinai, but all Jewish souls, past, present and future.

I want to fast forward to tell you the story of one of my classmates, Rabbi Juan Meija. I know, the name may sound a bit 'not so Jewish'. He wasn't a rabbi back then of course, but we learned together at the Conservative Yeshiva, and one night, I had the courage to ask him, we were at Sinai together? In other words, Juan Meija is not such a Jewish name – so....

And then, he told me his story (although he told me his story in person, I am providing an excerpt from a news article: http://jewishjournal.com/culture/lifestyle/131773/

Mejia told his story of growing up in a middle-class Catholic home in Bogota, Colombia — his father a physician, his mother an artist — and of his education at a school run by Benedictine monks.

At a Christmas family gathering when Mejia was 15, his tipsy uncle told jokes about racial and ethnic stereotypes. It was all fun and games … until the uncle mocked Jews. That’s when Mejia’s grandfather became very upset.

Mejia didn’t understand the reaction; he pressed his grandfather, who finally admitted: “My grandfather was Jewish.” The old man recalled how, when he was a child, he saw his grandfather and other family members put “towels” over their heads and pray.

No one had ever told me we had Jewish roots,” Mejia said. “That discovery — coupled with the fact that I really didn’t believe in most of the things I was supposed to believe in — made me realize I wasn’t really Catholic.”

After Mejia graduated from the Benedictine school, his mother passed away. “That sent me into a religious and emotional crisis,” he said.

Mejia postponed college for a year, grabbed a backpack and set out to see the world. Call it fate or premonition, the first place he stayed for any length of time — three months — was Israel.

In Colombia, I never had Jewish friends,” Mejia said, “so being in Israel, being among Jews for the first time, made a deep impact. I fell in love with the country — the food, the landscape, the language; did I mention the food?” He laughed, patting his stomach. “I used to be thin … then I became Jewish.”

But when Mejia visited the kotel — the Western Wall — instead of having a life-changing mystical experience, he had “a mystical hangover.”

For 300 years, my family had kept up Jewish traditions,” Mejia said, “but in the last few generations, they’d dropped the ball. I felt there was a big hole in my soul because I should have been Jewish but wasn’t. It was very upsetting.”

All these signs pointed him toward Judaism – when he went to Germany for a trip, a Hassid stopped him in the street and asked, you look Jewish, can you help us make a 10th?

It was during this time when he made the decision to begin the process of formal conversion, but what's interesting is that he 'felt' Jewish already.

Now, he has devoted his life to converting South Americans who are either descendants of those who were forced to convert to Catholicism or seekers who are looking for the wisdom of Judaism.

I've spoken to many Jews by Choice and I've asked them, when did you feel Jewish? Reish Lakish, the famous Talmudic scholar famously said, “Ger She'Nitgayer K'Katan She Nolad” - A convert is a like a baby reborn. So I asked them, did you feel Jewish that moment of coming out of the mikvah reborn? The answer was always – no. For some, it was the first piece of Jewish text they learned. For others, it was the first Shabbat experience with Jews.

But I noticed something – there was a part of their soul that was Jewish. They weren't reborn, but suddenly, they did become children regarding Judaism. They weren't obligated for the mitzvoth yet, but they felt that they were part of our collective journey. Judaism isn't boring or taken for granted. They look at God, Torah and our community with awe and wonder, like a child looks at the world.

There is a lot of debate in the Jewish community of the role of those seeking Judaism – do we openly say to seekers, we want you to be part of our journey? Do we accept people who look differently than we do and bring with them different baggage from other cultures? Are converts equal to born Jews? The answer is, yes, yes, yes.

And this is my answer to the seekers who come to me – I don't turn them away three times like the Talmud says. Rather, I give them three yes's. And I do this because of the richness that seekers have brought to us.

And there's another famous story I want to share, about Moses and Sinai:

When Moshe went up to the Heavens [at Mt. Sinai], he found God sitting and fastening crownlets to the letters of the Torah. He asked: Master of the universe, who is delaying you [in this way the giving of the Torah]? God responded: There will be a man who will live many generations from now whose name is Akiva son of Joseph, and he will derive heaps of laws from every jot and tittle. Moshe said: Master of the universe, show him to me! God replied: Turn around. Moshe went and sat behind the eighth row of students [in Akiva’s Beit Midrash]. He did not understand what was being said. Moshe felt faint. But when the discussion reached a certain point, Rabbi Akiva’s students asked: ‘Rabbi, what is the source of the authority of these teachings?’ Rabbi Akiva replied: Halacha L’Moshe miSinai, This is
law given to Moshe at Sinai.’ And then, Moses was at ease.

Rabbi Akiva, who started learning at the age of 40, was a descendent of Jews by Choice, and some of the most famous rabbis of the Talmud, like Avtalyon and Shmaya, were Jews by Choice. Rabbi Akiva could see things that Moshe could not see – if we take this idea to heart, perhaps we can open our eyes to see that those who grew up differently than us can help us glean lessons from our Torah that we could not possibly see without them.

My message to us in the 21st Century is that Torah was not meant to be hoarded to ourselves, but shared with the world. It was meant to be a tool to bring others close, not just Jews, but seekers who may not have the license yet, but who are on the road to beginning our collective journey.

May we all stand together in just a couple of days to receive Torah once again, Jewish souls of the past, present and future.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

What Do You Mean When You Say “Next Year In Jerusalem”?

What Do You Mean When You Say “Next Year In Jerusalem”?
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
Parashaht Acharei Mot 2016/5776

On the 8th Day of Passover, we held an interesting conversation after services:  what does L'Shanah Ha'ba'ah BiYerushalayim/Next Year In Jerusalem mean to us as Jewish Americans?

Most people said they said it by rote, not realizing the profound statement of these three words – but rarely do we take the words to heart.

Most of the answers were about a personal ideal – Jerusalem is a place that exists in us, or it is a metaphor for world peace.

One person said – “when I say those words, I feel guilty.”  She elaborated:  “I feel guilty because I know that I made my life here in America, and yet, there's a Jewish state in Israel that I am not a citizen of, and there's a level of guilt I feel about not living there.”

I want to share with you the words of Jeffrey Goldberg regarding these words from the New American Haggadah:

The Haggadah The most demanding hole in the final moments of the seder.  Next year in Jerusalem We declare, sometimes nervously, sometimes self-consciously, often ambivalently.  Think about it: We can achieve in less than a day what it took our ancestors forty years to do- move to and become citizens of the Jewish state.  This call was, for most of the Passovers of Jewish history, a messianic aspiration; Jerusalem was an unachievable goal.  Things have changed.  Zionism, the most successful national liberation movement of the 20th Century, has made it possible for us to do what Moses could not.  And yet:  Does “Next year in Jerusalem” mean that we are actually supposed to make aliyah tomorrow?  The comfortable answer is:  No, obviously not.  The uncomfortable answer is: Yes.  Imagine having the ability to commune with their distant and downtrodden ancestors, in their scattered shtetls and ghettos.You happily inform them that, yes, for the first time since the Romans ethnically cleansed Israel, a Jewish state exists.  They are overwhelmed with joy and ask, “What is it like to live there?” And you answer, “Well I wouldn't actually know.”

World Jewry just observed the holiday of Yom HaShoah.  There is a stark difference in the way we see these holidays.  Today, I want to talk about this idea:  how different Jews in America and Israel are, but at the same time, how similar we are.

In Parashat Acharei Mot, we read about the holiday of Yom Kippur.  In our parashah, it's presented on its own, but we know now that Yom Kippur is the end of a process – the 10 days of tesuvah.  It begins with Rosh Hashanah, and ends with Yom Kippur.  10 days of personal introspection.  But the Jewish calendar is filled with holidays that are tied to other holidays.  What is Pesach, the Exodus of Egypt and freedom, without Shavuot, the giving of Torah with the Omer leading up to it.

Avraham Infeld, the former director of International Hillel, takes a similar look at the holiday of Yom HaShoah.  Can it exist alone?  The answer is no, it wasn't meant to be observed like that.  Like the other Jewish holidays, it is intricately connected to the others, and the others are, Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut – Israeli Memorial Day and Israeli Independence Day.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which focus on Tesuvah, are deeply personal, the Ten Days of Me; but these days, starting with Yom HaShoah and ending with Yom Ha'atzmaut, he calls them the Nine Days of We.

Yom HaShoah, he says, a tragedy that did not happen in Israel, and yet, the whole country stands still because it was a tragedy that affected the Jewish people, the destruction of 1/3 of the Jewish people.  I want you to think about it like a roller coaster – then we continue going down – a memorial day where Israelis remember the people, their family members, who helped give them the state – they remember the silver platter that the state was delivered on.  And then, it comes to a high note – Israeli Independence Day.  This day has fundamentally changed what it means to be a Jew in the world.  Infeld says that the word Jew used to be synonymous with refugee, but because of Israel, for the first time in 2,000 years, this is not the case.
When our community was planning for the Maccabbee games, a representative from International JCC came to speak with us.  A young Israeli woman, who put the midot, or values around the room:

Showing respect - Kavod
Inspiring pride - Geavah
Sharing joy - Rinah
Repairing the world – Tikkun Olam
Open Heartedness – Lev Tov
Jewish Peoplehood– Amit Yehudit

All of us in the room, Jewish Americans, had to go to the term that most spoke to us.  She was the only one who went to Amit Yehudit/Jewish peoplehood.

Like the 'Next Year In Jerusalem' example, we, Jewish Americans, have to look ourselves in the mirror and wonder – what is missing inside of us the longer we live here in safety?

What could 'Next Year In Jerusalem' mean for us?  Perhaps this means for Jewish Americans what Goldberg says, “At the very least, as a repudiation of the wicked son (who takes himself out of the story with his question – what is this rite to you all, not me):  Jews, no matter our politics, have a special responsibility to tie ourselves to Israel's fate, And to work for the vision of Israel in which we believe.”

Our parashah tells the story of two goats.  Each goat has its own baggage – one goat for Azazel and one goat for God. The goat for Azazel is the scapegoat – the goat sent away with the people's sins.  Two goats, with two different paths, and yet, they are intricately connected and necessary.

This summer, Yossi Klein HaLevi, an Israeli who was born in the U.S. and the author of the famous book, Like Dreamers, looked at us, a group of Jewish-American Rabbis and said, “We are products of the societies we live in, we are affected by our neighborhoods –We Israelis are rough because of our neighborhood, perhaps too rough, and I for one am grateful that Jewish Americans help us see the big picture of the need to be more moral at times. You, the Jews of America, are comfortable because you aren’t surrounded by threats, but perhaps you are too comfortable.  Therefore, we Israeli Jews and Jewish Americans must come together and help each other.”

Maybe Jerusalem actually means Jerusalem, a city at the heart of the state of Israel.  And maybe we have to struggle with this very real idea.  Maybe, it's ok to feel torn in two, because that torn feeling will help us become more whole.

Like in Had Gadya, we, Jewish people, are the one goat – it might seem like there are two goats, but we are really one.  My hope is that we can tag along with Israel as 'we' observe these 9 Days of We.  My hope is that we realize the following:  no matter how different we are, and no matter how different our political beliefs, we ultimately share one heart.