Saturday, November 28, 2009

In Memory of Jennifer Lynn Harris: b. 4/23/66 d. 5/23/1981

Among my most vivid childhood memories are the day Jenni Harris died and the following Monday when while sitting in the chair just behind her empty chair (Harrison always followed Harris in the seating chart), her death was announced over the PA system to the entire school. Losing a dear friend at such a young age leaves its mark. It was certainly my first close hand experience with death. I would venture to guess that Jenni’s death likewise left a mark on many of us, her Lower Moreland classmates.

Luckily I have many memories of Jenni’s life to offset the ones of her death. Her beaming smile and her incredible sense of humor are foremost. Cystic Fibrosis may have ravaged her body, but Jenni rarely if ever let it consume her incredible spirit. Even when the illness would flare up and hospitalization was required – as it too often was – she made the best of it with wheel chair and IV pole races up and down the halls of the peds unit at Holy Redeemer between therapies. That’s how Jenni approached life. With zest, eagerness, and a desire, like most kids, to have fun! Of course, as any kid would, Jenni hated the CF – she couldn’t stand being sick; she couldn’t stand being so skinny when all of her friends around her were growing up (and she certainly couldn’t understand when one of her friends was doing anything to fight the normal processes of puberty); and yet, despite the CF, Jenni was able to laugh through her struggles and engage fully with her life, family, and friends, for as short as it was, remaining active in all of the activities – which were many - that gave her joy really until the very end of her life.

Memory is an interesting phenomenon – two people can experience the same exact events and yet their memories of these shared events can be diametrically opposed. I could continue to share all of my personal memories of Jenni: such as playing the flute in band together or being picked on by her older brother, but each of us has memories of our classmate, Jennifer Lynn Harris, differing and varied memories for sure. Some crystal clear and others faded with the passage of time - yet, all of us who had the opportunity to know Jenni can share an important lesson from her life.

Jenni had 15 years in this world. That’s it. She lived them fully and made the very best of those few years she had facing each day with courage and all the joy she could muster. My fellow Lower Moreland classmates: we have all lived well more than twice the number of years that Jenni had -- we are nearing three times her lifetime. Let’s not take that for granted! Let’s be grateful for each and every day we have to share with our family and our friends and to be grateful for all that is good. In that way, perhaps, we can allow Jenni’s legacy to persist in this world.

In Judaism we offer the words: זכרונה לברכה (may she be remembered for a blessing) after the name of one who has deceased. Jennifer Lynn Harris, זכרונה לברכה –may Jenni’s memory survive in each of us and may she be remembered always as a blessing.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Toldot: The Chain of History, delivered Erev Shabbat Toldot

As some of you know, this past Shabbat I had the joy of celebrating with my family as the son of one of my many cousins was called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah. I descend from a fairly sizable family. Growing up, it was a tight nit family: cousins from both sides would gather with grandparents regularly. Seders and Chanukah parties would draw 50 some odd relatives. My family got to host one night of seder each year and the large summer swim parties (‘cause we had the big, old sunken pool in the back yard). There are stark differences between the sides of my family - my mother’s side having roots in this country that extend back at least to the Civil War and possibly to the American Revolution, while my father’s parents each immigrated here separately and by themselves from Russia and Poland between the World Wars. My mother’s parents’ home depicted the traditional set up – my grandfather a business owner, my grandmother a school teacher who ‘retired’ in order to raise kids and volunteer in her synagogue and numerous other organizations such as NOW and Hadassah. My dad’s mom, on the other hand was a career woman, a partner in hers and my grandfather’s men’s suit business. And when left suddenly a widow in mid-life, she applied that tough immigrant work ethic and ran the family business single handedly. She was the rare business woman of her generation working hard to provide for her children and put them through college (Ivy League no less – which gave her immense pride). She was a tough woman. Those pool parties were the rare occasion I saw my Grandmom Irene in something other than a business suit. My mom’s mom was a fabulous cook who nurtured us with food and my grandfather a prolific gardener. My Dad’s mom, well her cookies were as hard as golf balls, and Shake n’Bake was gourmet at her place (though it was she who taught me how to make Kasha). Yet despite all the differences, everyone in the family came together often and en mass. Now, spread out occasions such as Bar Mitzvahs, 50th wedding anniversaries, significant birthdays, and the rare Rabbinical ordination, serve as our family gatherings. Each time we gather, I am struck by the aging of my parents generation…is that my aunt who is so bent over, when did my Dad start walking so slowly…as well as the aging of my generation’s kids: how is that little Julie is already in college! The one who celebrated his Bar Mitzvah this past Shabbat - I’m sure we just celebrate his 1st birthday.

While Torah portions take their name simply from their opening words, this week’s portion’s appellation, Toldot, generations, is fitting in that it underscores the power of family and specifically the patriarchal lineage that is presented in these early stories of Bereshit.

Parashat Toldot can serve to remind us each of our place in the historical chain of Jewish history. We’ve read a lot about Abraham in the past couple of weeks. From his willingness to follow the call of lech l’cha of going forth to settle a new land and seed a new nation, to his challenging God in the story of Soddom and Gomorrah, to his purchase of that first plot of land on the soil which God has promised to his progeny, the appointment of Abraham as a patriarch of the Israelite nation is obvious. We celebrate him as the father of the Jewish people - it all starts with him.

This week’s Torah portions jumps quite quickly to Abe’s grandchildren. And, the narrative throughout the next few portions inclusive of that famous wrestling match from which Jacob will emerge a physically and emotionally changed man will make Jacob’s place among the patriarchs clear. He emerges as none other than Israel.

But what about Isaac? We read of his birth, of his travels with his father to Mount Moriah where he finds himself bound for slaughter. We read of his servant’s travels to find him a wife, but what does he do? What actions does he take? The pshat doesn’t offer much; there simply isn’t much in the narrative to go on. Isaac doesn’t appear to do anything particularly astounding. In fact on the contrary, most view Isaac as a helpless character – unable to find his own wife, unable to even give the right blessing to the right son. Maybe his political negotiations with Avimelech, the king of the Philistines, are the source of his claim to patriarchal fame? Doubtful. Rather, I’d argue that it is his sheer presence and willingness to stay connected to the family that makes him an important link in our Jewish history.

We are wonderful at celebrating the success of the individual. We tend to celebrate achievements and accomplishments as if these are the key to our legacy in the world. Isaac’s presence in the chain of our patriarchs reminds us otherwise. He didn’t have to wrestle with God to get there. BUT, he does have to bear the responsibility of passing on the values that were central to his parents to his own children.

The Midrash, drawing on a text in Leviticus where our Patriarchs are listed in reverse order: Jacob, Isaac, then Abraham, teaches that all three were on par with each other. Their individual accomplishments are worthy and important, but they do not serve to elevate one individual over another in terms of their individual status within their family and by extension among the Israelites. Their yichus, as my immigrant grandmother would have called it, comes from being committed to the chain. If Isaac opted out there would have been no Jacob to wrestle with God and become Israel.

Each and every one of us is a vital link in the chain of history. Regardless of our accomplishments or lack thereof, our presence and involvement is essential – each of us matters. And the significant role each of us has to play is to make sure this chain of Jewish history doesn’t end with us. We should all strive to be like Isaac –a critical link through which Judaism lives and is passed to the next generation.

My cousin and her husband have done and continue to do their job. Witnessing the next generation of Harrisons/Cohens/Wolfes (and soon Silvermans!) step up to the responsibility of Torah, I am confident that like Isaac my cousins and I are doing our best to be a vital link in Toldot - in Jewish history – the link between our parents and our children. How about you?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"Where is God?" delivered Shabbat Vayera 11/7/09 by Rabbi/Cantor Rhoda JH Silverman

I admit it.  Those of you who know me well may not be too surprised, but those of you who don’t, well - hold on to your seats for a confession:  I am not too sure I believe in God.  Whew!  There.  I said it.  I struggle with the concept of, the belief in God, particularly a personal God.  And some days, I’m far less sure than others.  I doubt I am alone in this.  I know that I am not alone in this, but somehow to admit this as a Rabbi, a Cantor - a Jewish leader, feels heretical.  “What do you mean YOU don’t believe in God?”  You might be thinking.  “If you, someone who has devoted her life to Jewish study, synagogue life, and the perpetuation of Judaism, who stands on this bema and offers prayers on behalf of the kahal; if you don’t have faith, then why should I?” A valid point. 

However, it should be fully noted that while I struggle with the existence of a personal God, I firmly believe in Godliness! This week’s Torah portion Vayera certainly challenges us to delve into the question of God.  And a close look at the text propels me to imagine that our Biblical ancestors also struggled with the nature of God.  Immediately in our portion, the line between God and humanity is blurred:וירא אליו יהוה באלני ממרא God appeared to Abraham as he was resting outside his tent under the shady oaks of Mamre in the heat of the day, then immediately וישא עיניו וירא, Abe looked up and saw שלש אנשים נצבים עליו, 3 men standing there upon him.  We are informed that God makes Godself known to Abraham, but when Abraham looks up, he sees men, human beings. Three humans that tradition views, not as ordinary mortals, but as מלאכים, divine messengers.  It is unclear when Abraham comes to recognize their Godliness: is part of his eagerness to serve them a recognition of their divine status?  One thing is clear, the Biblical author uses these אנשים almost interchangeably with God. 

The division between man and God is no less clear in the fiery story of Sodom and Gommorah.  The men ַאנשים)) went up from there and gazed down upon Sodom, Abraham going along with them to send them off. The Eternal [“Adonai”] then thought “Should I hide from Abraham what I am doing?...vs. 20) The Eternal One [“Adonai”] said, ‘The outcry in Sodom and Gomorrah - how great it is, and their crime - how grave it is! Let me go down and determine whether they are wreaking havoc in equal measure to the shrieking that is coming to Me. If not, I will know. vs22) The men now turned away and went toward Sodom...

It’s as if these human men are far more than messengers, but rather agents - the eyes and ears of God - as if they and God were instant messaging information back and forth [maybe the traditionalists are right that everything of import is indeed found in Torah - look a biblical precedent for IMing]!  This encounter between Abraham, these אנשים and יהוה raises a key question: is there a line between divinity and humanity? And, if so, where is it?   Clearly the Biblical text regards humankind as a vehicle of divinity.  Regardless of our personal faith, or lack of faith in God, this is a lesson, a model from which all of us can and should learn. Furthermore, this text challenges us to ask who is truly offering the best representation of Godliness.  Are these anashim, whom we readily recognize and understand as representations of God the best exemplars of Godliness.  They appear to be the vehicle by which this Adonai sees and hears what’s happening; yet, it seems to me that Abraham’s behavior is far more worthy of emulation.  

Our opening verses (which our Bat Mitzvah will discuss) of course remind us of Abe’s hospitality, literally we are told that he וירץ לקראתם, eagerly runs out to greet and attend to the needs of the stranger.  But even more compelling is his behavior with regard to God’s announcement regarding the destruction Sodom and Gomorrah.  While the men that tradition recognizes as agents of God stand and witness the wickedness of Sodom apparently accepting their boss’ (i.e., God’s) harsh judgement as deserved without question, it is the fully mortal Abraham who is willing to speak out, to argue on behalf of the innocent, working against what is understood as the most all-powerful force - namely GOD - in order to save life.   He doesn’t succeed, and we are lead to believe that there was no innocent life worth saving; regardless of his failure, his efforts are valiant and by definition, godly.   

The other difficult story in Parashat Vayera - the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac - a tale that is held up in much of Rabbinic folklore as a testament to the extent and extraordinary nature of Abraham’s faith in God.    A midrash preserved in Sefer Aggadah, a wonderful collection of Rabbinic legends, however, could help us understand it differently.  According to this legend, Abraham had repeated opportunities presented by the advisary to change paths, yet he determinedly (stubbornly?) continues on this terrible journey to sacrifice his son.  In the moment that he raises the knife, however, Abraham demands of the messengers who call to him a conversation directly with God, calling out, “I...swear that I will not go down from this altar until I say all that I need to say!”  The midrash imagines Abraham continuing with a confession; and it is this confession that is open to comment: “When You - God - commanded me to sacrifice my son Isaac... I restrained my impulse and did not reply as I should have.”  Historically, this confession is understood as Abraham admitting to a moment of crisis in faith (a failure of faith), before saying yes to God’s awful demand; yet, his confession could just as easily be understood as a recognition, an admittance, that he was wrong to blindly trust this absurd request. 

Perhaps we are to understand that God’s reward of a blessed and numerous progeny stems from Abraham admitting that he should have said no from the start. Let us not be so quick to demand of ourselves so consistent and unwavering faith in God that we then find fault in our doubt or worse in ourselves.  If Abraham, a regular joe, just like any of us, has the capacity to question what he perceives as God, and in doing so is able to act Godly in this world, than certainly can we.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Lech L’cha: Go Forth, delivered Shabbat morning 10/31/2009, Rabbi/Cantor Rhoda JH Silverman

לך לך֛ These opening words of our parsha flow off the tongue beautifully in Hebrew. Any attempt at a literal translation, though, stumbles clumsily past our lips. Lech, that’s easy - “Go!”, but the l’cha raises a bit of difficulty. A word which, as is common in Hebrew, incorporates both preposition and pronoun together, it could be “to you” or “for you.” No combination of these words translated separately quite captures the essence of Lech l’cha. Rather, לך לך֛ is most accurately understand as a phrase evoking motion; the best definition, “Go forth!” implies an imperative 2nd person singular, with the ‘you’ understood rather than stated. Ah - the challenge and fun of translation, and from a Jewish approach to text, a source for rich comment.

Much of the commentary on this parasha focuses on the subject of Lech l’cha, the ‘you’ – which is, of course, Avram, who we will soon know as Abraham. The midrashim, the legends, explaining why Avram is the focus of this imperative lech l’cha are endless. The most famous, the one we learn so well as children in religious school that as adults many of us are surprised to find that it is nowhere in the Biblical text itself, may be the story about a young Abraham smashing his father’s idols and thus bravely and boldly displaying faith in a singular and invisible God. Another lovely midrash which seeks to explain why Abram is chosen to be the subject of the biblical ‘Go Forth’ imperative imagines God finding Avram from among the rest of humanity in the same way that a king finds his precious pearl buried in the dust of the earth. Still another has the Mesopotamian ruler Nimrod seeing Abraham’s rise as the father of numerous and blessed progeny predicted in the stars of the sky.

The focus of these legends are firmly on the ‘l’cha’ – an attempt to understand the choice of who. Why Abe? And, more honestly, as Jews who trace our lineage back to Abraham, what we are ultimately striving to understand is, “why us?” The tendency towards creating this apologetic explanation of why Abraham was chosen, and by extension the Israelites, for covenant in our biblical text - why us and not someone else or some other people - is rife with theological difficulty; and, Reform Judaism has openly struggled with this difficult concept of chosen-ness since its inception. I’d argue we are still struggling with finding that balance between particular- and universal - isms. By focusing on the l’cha of our command lech l’cha, however, we remain focused on this challenging question of chosenness which is frankly, in my opinion, ultimately unanswerable without a critical understanding of the historical context.

Instead, let us focus on the Lech, the verb instead of the subject. This instruction can give us clear direction, and here that English understanding “Go forth!” is extremely useful.

The opening lines of our text are filled with the promise of blessing. At first glance, it appears that we will be the passive recipients of blessing. ונברכו בך כל משפחות האדמה, “then they, all the communities of the earth, will be blessed through you” as if Avram’s actions will lead to all of us receiving blessing. This promise of future blessing appears in two other places in Genesis but with a slight emendation. In each place it reads, והתברכו בזרעך כל גוי הארץ, “then all the nations of the earth will make themselves blessed through your seed.”

The primary difference has to do with the verbal form of the word for “bless.” A brief grammar lesson. Hebrew verbs have roots that change meaning depending on their form, what we call in hebrew their binyan. In this week’s verse, the binyan is nifal, נברכו, which is generally translated as passive; hence, the translation ‘that the families/communities of the earth will be blessed through you.’ The later verses contain the hitpael verb form, התברכו, which is an active, reflexive form, ‘they shall bless themselves.’ So which is it? Do we receive blessing because Abraham was chosen; OR, do we create our own blessing because of actions we take?

Biblical scholar, E.A. Speiser argues drawing on those parallel verses that come later that even in our opening passage of Lech L’cha, the phrase should be translated in the active, reflexive form teaching us that in order to gain blessing, we each have to Lech l’cha, we have to ‘go forth.’ Ultimately this is a choice, but it isn’t God’s choice, or our ancestor’s choice. This is a choice that each and every one of us has to make.

A word to our Bat Mitzvah
Sfat Emet, a late 19th century chasidic commentator viewed the command lech l’cha to be less about geographic movement than about being willing to carve out a new path separate from the past, being able to continually move forward, in his mind, to ‘keep walking.’ In modern psychological speak, we might call this ‘individuation’ - where an individual is able to take what she needs from what has been given her and is able to formulate her own path, make her own healthy decisions, and formulate her own opinions and unique ideas. May you, lech l’cha, go forth!, from today using all of the ideas and tools for life that you have been given so far, to hitbarech, to create your own blessing while remaining an active and full participant in our congregation and the extended Jewish community.