Saturday, January 21, 2017

Leaning In to Multiple Identities: From Shifra and Puah, to Matilda Shechter, to the Women of Today

Leaning In to Multiple Identities:  From Shifra and Puah, to Matilda Shechter, to the Women of Today
Sisterhood Shabbat
By Alissa Baum


I’ll never forget an interaction I had with a young woman soon after I finished my course work as a clinical psychologist.  This young woman who happened to be in college approached me at Camp Ramah Darom when we were there one summer:  “Dr. Baum, my name is Shira, it’s so nice to meet you.  I was wondering if you could give me some professional advice as I plan for my future.”  As someone who just achieved a milestone in my professional life, I was so eager to hear this question and offer some sage advice.  “Dr. Baum, how do I marry a rabbi?” 

You all at CSK (Congregation Shaarei Kodesh) know me as Alissa, and I even allow some of you to call me ‘rebetzin’, but beyond the shul walls I actually have several different names.  For most of the day, I am Dr. Baum, a clinical psychologist at the Renfrew Center, an eating disorder treatment center.  At home, my children don’t recognize my doctorate and I’m simply “Imma”. 

In some ways, this might seem confusing - having different names and different identities, not just in one week, but in one day.  This multiple identity is nothing new for men.  Men are never criticized for their different roles, but for some reason, women, throughout history have been looked at through only through a couple of lenses - daughter, mother, wife.  Up until this point in the Torah, until the book of Shemot, this is how women are known - but this week, in Exodus, we are introduced to two powerful women, women whom you may never of heard of, but without these women, we would not be here. 

The women I’m talking about are Shifra and Puah - the Hebrew midwives that are introduced at the beginning of this week’s parashah. 

Who were these women - first off, the text calls them M’yaldot haivriot - Hebrew midwives.  They are given the following order form Phaorah: “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” 
In an act of brave defiance, these midwives refused Pharaoh’s orders to kill the infant boys. 

The question is, were they Hebrews who happened to be midwives, or Egyptian midwives who worked for the Hebrews.  Of course, the commentators give both interpretations.  Some of the commentators say that they must be Egyptian because of what they were commanded to do by Pharoah - to murder all of the Hebrew boys.  But, as we know through history, Jews have sometimes killed other Jews by decree of evil dictators, lest they die as well.  The Midrash gives us a different perspective - not only were they midwives who happened to be Hebrew, but they had other names as well - Miriam and Yocheved. 

Rashi gives the following explanation for how this can be - Shifra is Yocheved - so called because she makes (meshaperet) the child shapely; and Puah is Miriam - so called because she purrs (po’ah), talks and coos to the child, as women do in order to pacify a crying infant. 

Here we see something interesting - we are introduced to two incredibly brave women, who also happened to be the famous Miriam and Yocheved, but they are not introduced to us as Moses’s sister and mother, or Amram’s daughter and wife.   

They are professional midwives - not only that, but they challenge evil and act in righteous ways, saving lives.  Their professions were not just about money - it was about self worth and their own mission for their lives, something which as a mental health professional I relate to very well.

From here, we see that even in the ancient world, women could have different identities, and not only is it ok, not only should they not be looked down upon for it, but they should be praised.

And we also see something interesting as a follow up for their act of civil disobedience:

“And God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and increased greatly. And because the midwives feared God, He established households/Batim for them.” (Exodus 1:20-21)

What does it mean that God established batim, literally homes, for them?  The commentators give various interpretations.  Rashi assumes that these midwives are Yocheved and Miriam, so the ‘houses’ that God establishes for them are the priestly and levitical houses, as Aaron, the high priest is Yocheved’s son, and King David is a descendent of Miriam - in other words - a legacy through their descendents.  Other commentators say that Batim means that God literally gave them nice and safe houses. 

But perhaps we can expand our view of what ‘batim’ could mean for them, and for us. 

The theme for this year in Women’s League is P’ri Yadeha, the fruit of her hands. We live in a time where the fruit of our hands no longer has to be how clean our house is, or the Shabbat dinner we put on the table. It is also the fruits that we grow in our communities and in our careers, the lives we touch as volunteers, teachers, lawyers, therapists, accountants, and the list goes on.

We would not be gathering here this evening if it was not for the work of another amazing woman who went against the grain and made a place for the woman in Judaism that was not just in the kitchen. Matilde Shechter was married to the great Solomon Shechter, who was the Architect of Conservative Judaism. Mathilde Schechter pursued serious interests outside the home. She established a Jewish vocational school for girls on the Lower East Side, which not only prepared young women for the world of work but also helped to strengthen their Jewish identity. The crowning achievement of her public career was the establishment of the Women’s League of the United Synagogue of America (today called the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism). One of the first projects of the Women’s League was the establishment in 1918 of a Student House in the Columbia University area that served as a center for Jewish students as well as for Jewish soldiers and sailors on leave. The concept of a Student House was a true expression of Mathilde Schechter’s values as a caretaking person. It fulfilled an important function as a recreational and cultural center before the existence of the B’nai B’rith Hillel university system. Speaking on Mother’s Day 1919, at Mordecai Kaplan’s Jewish Center in New York, Mathilde Schechter stressed the “absolute unselfishness and utter forgiveness of mother-love,” at the same time emphasizing the needs of mothers to retain a sense of themselves apart from their maternal role.[1]

The Bayit that Shiphra and Puah/Yocheved and Miriam built was a family and a multitude of descendents, but also a legacy of opposing tyranny and acting with righteousness in a dark world.  Mathilde Schechter built a beautiful home for her family, but she also created a legacy through the establishment of Women’s League which is entering its 100th year of existence.  These women redefined the term Bayit - not just a home, but a legacy. 

And this is the reason that I choose to embrace the multitude of identities that I cycle through each day, from Imma and partner, to Doctor, to Rabbi’s wife.  It is not because I think one identity is more valuable over the other but because the fruits that I produce in each of my roles is important and impacts the people around me in different but important ways. So although you may know me as Alissa, I see myself as a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a leader, a healer, a friend, and so many more and I hope that each of you will choose to embrace each of your identities and see the fruit of your hands each day.    

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[1] https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/schechter-mathilde

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Journey to The Mountain Top © (MLK Jr. Day)

A Journey to The Mountain Top ©

Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh,
Parashat Nitzavim-Veyelech, 2013/5773

I want to begin by telling you a story of something that happened to me, and might have happened to you:
I was at a conference and a man came up to me, a man I had not recognized, and he started talking to me, but not like a stranger, like someone who knew me.  He asked me how my family was doing, how my job was going, how life in Boca Raton was, very specific questions, but I had no idea who this gentlemen was!  Finally, after 10 minutes of conversation, I summoned up the courage to ask him:  how do I know you?  How do you know so much about me but I don’t know you from Adam!  First he said, your name tag says your name and what city you are from, and second, we have met before, at Sinai. 
And the man walked away. 
Sinai, when the Jewish people received the Torah and in turn their destiny, is the transformative event of our people’s history.  That one event not only obligated the generation who experienced it to become part of the covenant between God and the Jewish people, but all future generations, and we see a reminder of this in our parashah this week:

9 You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, 10your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer— 11to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; 12to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 13 I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, 14but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.

Moses also reinforces the idea that Sinai wasn’t an event that just happened to their parents, because the people standing in front of him were their children, but also their children who are not yet born, as the midrash states:

and [also] with those who are not here: also with future generations. — [Midrash Tanchuma 3]”

Let me ask you something, is that fair?  Why should I be bound by the oaths that my great great-grandparents took?  If someone came to me saying that my ancestor owed them money, would I pay it? 
Perhaps this is why Moses gives this message again and expands on it.  Because this message is different. 
It’s interesting that Moshe begins by saying ‘all of you’ and then lists everyone, and that’s why it’s different. 
It is more inclusive.  We see here that Moses makes a point to include everyone, “your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer”
Why mention woodchopper and water drawer, and everyone in between?   Because these occupations are menial – they aren’t doctors and lawyers, they are the people who do the work that keeps us going and yet we don’t think about.  What is Moses saying – yes, even them, those who you might think are beneath you, and even the stranger in your midst – they are part of this covenant!  God loves them as much as God loves you. 
This week a very special event occurred, and no, I’m not talking about the VMA’s, but the anniversary of one of the greatest moments in the history of the United States – the 50th Anniversary of the I Have A Dream Speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 
Dr. King was a great man.  He was his generation’s Moses, and both had something in common – they were attempting to leave something to their people that would long outlive both themselves and the people who heard the speech!  They were attempting to bring future generations into their covenant. 
Moses may have started off as reluctant leader, making excuse after excuse as to why he was the wrong person for the job, but he grew into an almost super human force.  He spoke truth to power and was the only human who could know God, face to face, panim el panim.  But Moses, like Dr. King, could not see the true realization of his dream. 
What does it mean to ‘have a dream’ or to be a dreamer? 
We Jews are famous dreamers, and there is a famous midrash that I want to share with you to highlight this attribute: 
In the book of Psalms we celebrate the dreamers, 
"A Song of Ascents. When God brings about the return to Zion, we were like dreamers. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with joyous song. (Psalms 126:1-2). "The verb tense is confusing. It is a vision of the future that references the past. How timely!
Rabbi David Seth Kirschner, a colleague and friend commented on this line:
“Dreamers are people that use their past to better shape their future. Dreamers are influenced by challenge and adversity and know the road ahead is paved by the steps in the road already traveled. Dreamers hope and aspire for something better but, they learn best from their own encounters.”
And I would add, dreamers care more about the future than even the present.  They work so hard because they want to leave a better world for their grandchildren – they want their children to be part of their covenant. 
In this week’s parashah, Moses stood in front of his people giving them words of legacy, words that would stay with them on their journeys in life. 
When you read the “I have a dream speech”, you realize that Dr. King was a dreamer – he cared more about the future than his own life!  He spoke about a time when white children and black children in the Deep South would hold hands in solidarity.  This was a time when they were not allowed to drink out of the same water fountains!  When Jews and Gentiles would look at each other as brothers and sisters, hardly the world of the early 60’s!
Moses and Dr. King and so many other prophets teach us how to be dreamers.
The speech that Moses gave in our parashah was on the last day of his life, and he knew it was.  Dr. King also gave a speech shortly before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in support of African American garbage men on strike – looking for equal pay and equal rights, the woodchopper to water drawer of their day, and as you read the speech titled, I’ve Been To the Mountain top, you almost wonder, did he know? 
In his speech, he spoke about the times when he was almost assassinated –one time he was stabbed and the knife was once inch from his heart, and had he sneezed, he would have died.  So maybe he did know.  He ended the speech with these words:






“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! 
They both fought for the people for the sake of God.  They both fought injustice whenever and wherever it may be.

On this Labor Day, let us remember that equality of opportunity for all, including in work, was a big part of King’s legacy.  Let us remember that all of us are part of the Moses’ and King’s covenant.  Let us remember that we are all God's children - black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, and let us expand the list to include women, people of all religions, straight or gay, all races and creeds. 

All of us standing here today and those who come after us have the right to live a life of dignity and equality in these United States.  

Sunday, January 8, 2017

How We Replace Our Magic 8-Ball - Words of Torah for Asarah B'Tevet

How We Replace Our Magic 8-Ball - Words of Torah for Asarah B'Tevet
Rabbi David Baum

Did you have a Magic 8 ball growing up?  It’s been with us since the 1950’s - that magic ball could answer any question that had a yes or no answer - except when it gave us the response:  better not tell you now, or reply hazy, try again later.   The inventor of the magic 8 ball was on to something - he tapped into something eternal. 


Who in here has a difficult question that they cannot answer?  What if I could give you something that would answer all of life’s most difficult questions?  The truth is, as Jews, we had something like this.  It was our ancestor’s version of the magic eight ball, but it all actually worked!  Our magic 8 ball was the breast plate that the High Priest would wear - the Urim and Tumim.  Now what happens when they are lost?  How do you find answers to the unanswerable? 

We just celebrated Hanukkah, a day of the re-dedication of our Temple, and just a week later, we observe another holiday - this one about the beginning of the destruction of the Temple - Asarah B’Tevet. 

Asarah B’tevet memorializes the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadneezer’s Babylonian army – the destruction of Jerusalem now became almost inevitable. Though the Temple in Jerusalem was reconstructed after six decades, though Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem sometime later, and though Israel once again became an independent power under the Hasmoneans, the heroes of the Hanukkah story, some four hundred years later, in Jewish eyes there was never a return to what was seen as the special time when the First Temple was in its glory.  Arguably, the greatest symbol of the loss of this glory could be seen through the permanent loss of the Urim and Tumim, the priestly breastplate which represented the tribes of Israel and through which the Divine communicated to the High Priest.  The Urim and Tumim, our magic 8 ball.  Whenever a question came to the leadership of Israel that was too difficult to answer, they would turn to the Urim and Tumim, a direct link to God, for the answer. 

The loss of the Urim and Tumim represented a loss of direct connection to the divine.  The second Temple was eventually rebuilt, but it was the first Temple that truly held the hearts of the people.  Following the destruction of the First Temple, our people evolved to see the connection of God through holy debate, and eventually after hundreds of years of development, this concept of holy debate moved into the Beit Midrash, the house of learning.  However, there were times when holy debate ventured into unholy territory.  The rabbis of the Talmud describe how dangerous the life of the Beit Midrash could be – susceptible to human error, inviting jealousy and self-satisfaction, subject to the display of ego rather than the search for truth; the rabbis observed and worried about how those engaged in the life of the mind can lose sight of the people who they debate with and how a Jew can become a destroyer rather than a builder. 

Interestingly, on the tenth of Tevet, as on other fast days, we are commanded not so much to recite prayers of remembrance, but rather to engage in confession of our sins.  So we fast not so much to commemorate the past, but to remind ourselves how far we are from getting back to a place where the Divine light shines through with clarity.  

We have to face our own failures of how we have neglected to rebuild the Jerusalem of heaven here on earth because of how much our egos have gotten in the way, how our self-righteousness has led to the mistreatment of others, and how little we have achieved in self-understanding.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Ed Feld, told us a story about how he stayed at a monastery that over the decades had lost many members and was finally down to ten monks.  When he asked one of the Monks what he thought he was accomplishing by living the monastic life, he responded, “We believe that if the ten of us could learn to live together without jealousy, without anger, with love, then we would have something important to teach the world.”

So what is the Beit Midrash of our day where we tackle important and holy issues?  Of course, the Beit Midrash exists in our synagogues and schools, but Jewish learning and debate is also occurring virtually, especially through social media platforms.  As we have all seen and experienced, holy debate online often falls into unholy territory. 

For the days eight days of Hanukkah, I imposed a social media bubble on myself. I would quickly go on Facebook to post pictures of our family enjoying the literal and proverbial lights of Hanukkah, but I abstained from reading and re-posting articles on worldly and pressing issues. I'm back in South Florida, and I am engaging in the recent news stories.  Holding myself back during those eight days from posting about every news incident was a freeing experience.  These days of Hanukkah have led me to rethink my online presence, and this holiday, which occurs seven days later, will help me look at how I use my speech in public.  Perhaps this year of all years, Asarah B’Tevet can be a reminder of the power of our words and the potential of our actions. 

So today, I want to propose two ways in which we can help make up for the loss of our magic 8 ball, the loss of easy answers.  In order to get holy answers, we have to have holy conversation, and our tradition has tools to help us - we must become the magic 8 balls, the Urim and Tumim. 

So I’m going to start learning the laws of Shmirat HaLashon by the Chofetz Chaim, which is available for free and translated into English, online through a wonderful website called Sefaria.  I’m looking for chevrutot, learning partners, so if you are interesting, please let me know.  We will study in person, but more likely, online. 

And second, I’m going to take action in this world to help those in the Shaarei Kodesh community who feel under siege, just like the people of Jerusalem so many years ago.  Next week, we are having our first meeting of the Sunshine Team - We are starting a new group at Shaarei Kodesh – the Sunshine Team.  You don't need to be a Torah scholar, you don't need to be shomer shabbat either – all it takes is you lifting someone up this year – to bring light to the darkness.  Together, next Tuesday, we will begin the process of Jewish learning about the special mitzvoth of visiting the sick and shut ins, and training through the process, and we will organize to put our learning into action. 

Often times, we feel like we are ants in a giant world - powerless to the events of the world, under siege, but our rabbis taught us to think differently.  I’d like to end with a teaching from Rabbi Israel Salanter- The founder of the Modern Musar or Jewish Ethical Mindfulness Movement famously taught the following: When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country. When I found I couldn't change my country, I began to focus on my town. However, I discovered that I couldn't change the town, and so as I grew older, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, but I've come to recognize that if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And, my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country and we could all indeed have changed the world.

We may not be able to change the whole world, but at least we can begin with ourselves.  And perhaps this is the greatest takeaway from the 10th of  Tevet. 


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