Spiritual Exile – It Happens, So What Do We Do?

My D’var Torah from Friday night…

We talked a few weeks ago about the additional day of Pesah – the 8th day, which is not biblically ordained – as being an extra day observed only by those Jews who live outside of the land of Israel to insure that they were observing the holiday on the correct day.  This is just one reminder that those of us who live outside of the land of Israel live differently than those who make Israel their home.  Those of us who live outside of the land of Israel, we are referred to as living in the Diaspora – or, more strongly, in Galut, in EXILE!

Tonight, I ask all us, do we feel like we are living in EXILE?

For many of us, those of us who love Israel and have a longing in our hearts to be there, this is a time period in the Jewish calendar when that Zionist itch gets strong.  While we can observe Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day (which we did last week), anywhere, how much more powerful it is to commemorate this horrible time period in Israel – in a nation that rose from the ashes of the destruction in Europe?  While we can all pause to remember the Israeli soldiers who lost their lives, as we did on Wednesday (Yom HaZikaron), for the protection of the Jewish State, how much more powerful it is to remember them in Israel, as the air raid sirens howl and everyone, wherever you are, stops, stands and remembers in silence.  And, while we can all celebrate the 64th birthday of Israel – which took place on Thursday (Yom Ha’Atzmaut) – celebrating Israel’s birthday in America is a bit like celebrating your great-grandfather’s 100th birthday by phoning in your love your good wishes.  Being there does make a difference.  Given this, at this time of year and at other times, some of us definitely feel disconnected from the land of Israel.  But do we feel as if we are living in Exile?

For some, we have never been to Israel.  We don’t get the connection some of us have to this far off land that we read about in Torah and in the newspaper.  Maybe we do, but we just haven’t had the opportunity to experience it ourselves so we don’t feel the connection.  If this describes you, does this mean that you are living in Exile?

As some of you know, we are in a funny time period on the Jewish calendar, a period known as Sefirat Ha’Omer – the counting of the Omer.  The Omer, or “sheaf” was a harvest offering brought to the Temple on the second day of Pesah.  After this offering was brought, the Torah instructs us to count 7 weeks, or 49 days, which brings us to the holiday of Shavuot.  Today, we consider Shavuot the holiday that commemorates the receiving of the 10 Commandments.  But, in biblical times, it too was an agricultural holiday, marking the time when Jews brought the first fruits of their harvest to the Temple as offerings.

Interestingly enough, we still count each day of the Omer.  Tonight marks the 21st day of the Omer – you can see the numbers on any Jewish calendar.  Why would we still count these days?  We no longer bring harvest offerings and first-fruit offerings.  We know when Shavuot is – we don’t need to count the days.  Why didn’t this custom disappear?  Because the rabbis decided that counting of days between Pesah and Shavuot has a deeper meaning.  On Pesah – we celebrate our freedom, followed by our wandering in the desert – in no-mans land.  After the 49 days of counting, we arrive at Shavuot and receive the 10 Commandments.  No longer are we a wandering aimlessly in the desert.  We have rules and directions.  We are a true people, discovering our purpose.

The rabbis teach us that every year, despite the fact that we are no longer wandering in the desert literally, most of us are lost and misdirected spiritually.  On Pesah we all discover a new sense of freedom inside of us.  But, with this freedom comes the realization that we are not using this freedom to the best of our ability.  Some of us don’t know what to do with the freedom.  Some of us don’t appreciate it.  Some of us abuse it.  Some of us are just downright lost.  So, during the counting of the Omer, we are to engage in soul-searching, similar to what we do during the High Holidays, figuring out how we can find our way out of our own personal desert.  Hopefully, through prayer, meditation, rituals, study and intimate discussions, we can find our way out and experience the same type of liberation and redemption that our ancestors felt when they received the gift of the 10 Commandments.  This takes work.  And we must be willing to put in the work.  Spiritual searching is not easy.

As a Jew who loves Israel, a true Zionist, someone who fantasizes about living in Israel and loves to spend time there, I admit that, while there are times when I yearn to be there, I do not feel that I am living in EXILE.  Israel is indeed a significant piece of my spiritual home.  But this is home too.  I am not banished from Israel.  I might not be able to afford to fly there as often as I want to – but, by being here, I am certainly not a prisoner in a foreign land.  Israel is always there, waiting for my return.

For those who don’t feel the connection to Israel – you too are not living in EXILE.  None of us are relegated to an inferior land.  Certainly, Israel is an incredible place for Jews!  But, America isn’t a bad place for us either!

All of this being said, I do believe we can live in EXILE today.  Not exiled from Israel.  But exiled from a place of spiritual well-being and health.  Exiled not because we are banished by someone else, but exiled because we have not done enough to find the way out of the darkness.

Tonight is the 21st night of the Omer.  We have 28 more days to count.  28 more days to use the freedom we all received when the Red Sea parted centuries ago to look for our own 10 Commandments – our own spiritual direction.  Until we give ourselves the time to discover what our soul needs/wants/desires/craves/yearns for and until we determine the steps needs to fulfill our soul’s needs/wants/desires/craving/yearnings – we are spiritually lost – banished by ourselves to a spiritual wasteland.  This is EXILE.

No one deserves to be EXILED.  So how do we prevent it from happening to us?  Use the next 28 days of the Omer.  Ask yourself the deep questions – what do you need to bring more pure joy and happiness into your life?  What do you need to bring more peace into your routine?  What do you need to feel better about yourself? What do you need to discover about yourself?  What do you realistically need from G-d?  28 days.  Try to answer the questions.  28 days.  Lay out the steps needed to make your answers a reality.  You do these things, and Shavuot, which falls on May 27, will truly be a blessing for you and those who love you.

A Massage For The Soul

This week’s Torah portion is pretty gross.  It talks a great deal about skin lesions and fluids that come out of the body.  These lesions and fluids, the Torah suggests, were a sign that a person was spiritually out of sorts.  Various spiritual remedies were used to heal the spirit – or soul – of one suffering from lesions or bodily discharge.  These remedies ultimately led to the spiritual renewal of a person – a rebirth of sorts.  One of these remedies is still practiced to this day: mikveh.  

Mikveh is a pool of “living water” – that is water that is flowing.  While one can go to a mikveh in a synagogue or other building, the ocean is a perfect mikveh.  We liberal Jews often misunderstand the meaning and purpose of mikveh.  Essentially, it is used as a spiritual cleanse, a way to rejuvenate the soul.  Immersion in the mikveh is extremely simple.  One goes under the water three times and recites appropriate blessings.  If this sounds like baptism, you are right – they took it from us!  

No longer do we see lesions and bodily discharge as a sign that one is spiritually off.  Rather, we have come to understand that our spiritual energy waxes and wanes just like our physical and mental energy. One goes to the mikveh for various reasons.  Women go after their periods.  Brides and grooms go before their weddings.  Converts go on the day of their conversion (it is what makes them Jewish!).  People often go before Shabbat.  Anyone can go when in need of a spiritual boost.  

Many members of our community have immersed themselves in a mikveh and they can tell you how incredible the experience is.  It is unfortunate that we liberal Jews have dropped mikveh from our lives. We simply don’t understand the power of immersion in the mikveh. For many of us, it just seems silly.  That’s because we haven’t tried it!  Immersion in the mikveh is like a good massage for the soul.  And you won’t know it until you try it!

It is time for liberal Jews to reclaim this incredible ritual because we too need spiritual renewal.

One of the most powerful times to visit the mikveh is around the High Holidays, when we yearn for spiritual growth and a fresh start.  So, this September, in between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, I will be leading a Mikveh Workshop at the beach.  We will talk about the history and meaning of mikveh and, anyone who choses, will have the opportunity to immerse themselves in G-d’s mikveh – the living waters of the Atlantic Ocean.  You will have the opportunity to experience the power of this ancient ritual firsthand!  Of course, if you want a head start and want to visit the mikveh now, before Shabbat, let me know :)!

We Must Wait For Everyone To Cross the Red Sea…Whether It Takes 7 or 8 Days….

My words on 13 April 2012 as sunset on the 7th day of Pesah

Tonight is a very weird night on the Jewish calendar.

In Israel, Pesah is over.  As commanded in the Torah, for 7 days, we shall observe the rules and laws of Pesah.  For seven days we shall eat matzah.

Why 7 days?

Seven days commemorates that time between the 10th plague and the resulting Exodus from Egypt which occurred on the 15th day of Nisan and the splitting of the Red Sea – which happened 7 days later on the 21st of Nisan.  Pesah started last Friday night – on the 15th of Nisan.  Today was the 21st of Nisan.  So tonight, as the sunsets and the 22nd of Nisan begins, pizza is fair game in Israel.

Spiritually speaking, Pesah is the holiday during which we celebrate our very birth – or rebirth as a people, as a nation.  In Genesis, we read about individuals, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah.  In Exodus, while Moses is prominent, we are reading about a nation – a massive group of people leaving Egypt and beginning a civilization.  Pesah (the Exodus from Egypt) marks a complete change and turn-around – from a group of individuals to a group of slaves to a nation.  Given this, it only makes sense to take an entire week, a full cycle (7 days of creation) to be inspired and changed by this holiday.  Thus, we celebrate Passover for an entire week.  Seven days.

Now, for Orthodox and Conservative Jews (and many others) living outside of Israel, tonight, however, is still Pesah.  In these communities, Pesah is observed for 8 days.  This is not mentioned in the Torah at all.

Why do they observe for an extra day!?

Jewish holidays are based on the cycle of the moon. Passover begins on the 15th of Nisan.  A Jewish month begins with a new moon.  Once a new moon was declared, folks counted 15 days and Pesah would be celebrated.

During Temple times (at least 2,000 years ago), witnesses would come to the Temple in Jerusalem and testify that they had seen the new moon (a sliver) the previous night. After careful interrogation of the witnesses, the new month (Rosh Chodesh) would be declared. Once this happened, torches would be lit (in cities like Tzefat) and messengers would be sent to the surrounding areas informing the general populace that the new month had begun.

2,000 years ago, these messengers traveled several days to make this announcement. Jews living outside the messengers’ reach would keep an extra day due to the doubt as to which day was actually a holiday.  If you calculated the new moon on the wrong day, you would celebrate Pesah on the wrong day.  So the extra day of Pesah – the 8th day – was a precaution designed to insure that people didn’t eat matzah too early.

The second seder, also, is a precaution.  In Israel, there is not second seder.  It too was created to insure that you had your seder on the correct night.  What if the messengers were late!?

Now, in communities like Ramat Shalom – communities outside of Israel which adhere to modern Jewish theology, theology embraced by the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, the 8th day of Pesah is not adhered to.

Why?  Because we believe that modern technology has eliminated the need to worry that we will not be observing Pesah at the correct time.  We don’t have to wait for messengers to tell us when the new month begins.  Not only can we see the new moon in the sky, but we are in direct contact with Israel and the religious officials who establish the Jewish calendar.  We know when Pesah is.  There is never any question.  And so, some of us broke Pesah tonight, with a Ramat Shalom pizza dinner.

This being said, there are members of our community who adhere to the 8 days of Pesah.  Why?  Because this is how they were raised.  In the same way, many of us who break Pesah a day earlier – on the biblically ordained 7th day – still celebrate a 2nd seder because the 2nd seder is part of our custom – it is what we do.

So, tonight, for many Jews, Pesah is over.  At the same time, for many Jews, it is still Pesah…..We are in a period of limbo – leaven or unleavened?  Passover or just Shabbat?  For some, they have not yet crossed the Red Sea and entered freedom…for some, we have made it to the other side…..

So what do we do with this?

Some condemn Jews like us, who make the choice to follow the Israeli calendar –which to me makes so much sense.  We are accused of being lazy – of just wanting to toss the matzah a day earlier!  And, there is a point to this – but, following this argument, Israeli Jews are no lazier than we are.  For me, it is not about being lazy – but rather, connecting myself to Israel and the practice of our ancestors – the people who created Passover and in whose memory I adhere to the rituals and traditions.

But, ultimately, I don’t see when one breaks Pesah as something to argue about….There were a multitude of people who had to cross the Red Sea when it split.  Certainly, they all didn’t make it to the other side at the same time.  Those who made it over earlier – they waited for the last ones to cross.  Those of us who ended Pesah tonight, we have made a choice to cross early, yet in a manner that is embraced by our tradition.  Those who choose to eat matzah this Shabbat, they are waiting to cross.  And we, just like our ancestors who made it over first, will wait for those who practice 8 days.  Because whether we are in Israel or in Plantation, the Jewish people are not truly free until everyone has put their matzah away and crossed to the other side.

Joe’s Stone Crab and Keeping Kosher

As we continue reading the Torah, this week we learn many of the kosher laws, specifically which animals we are allowed to eat and which are forbidden to us. The Torah explains that animals with split hooves that chew their cud are permissible.  Permissible fish are those that have fins and scales (shellfish and many other items on the menu at Joe’s are not permissible…but hold on, don’t give up reading yet!).  Interestingly enough, the Torah also teaches us which insects are permissible to eat! Anyone up for some fresh locusts, crickets or grasshopper?

What is the meaning and relevance of the kosher laws to us today?  Certainly, there are some of us who observe these laws.  We have found meaning and significance in them.  However, many of us do not observe any of these dietary rules.  They seem antiquated and prevent us from eating foods that we love, like some of the items on Joe’s menu.

I believe that the kosher laws are misunderstood by many Jews today – even those who observe them.  To me, the laws were designed to make us stop before we eat and ask ourselves: “What am I putting into my body?  Is it good for me?  Is it going to fuel my body and soul in a healthy way?”  During Torah times, it was determined, for various reasons, that animals that did not have split hooves (like camels) and/or did not chew their cud (like pigs) were considered unhealthy to eat.  It was also determined that shellfish was off limits.  These are just a few of the restrictions imposed by the kosher laws, restrictions that would evolve with the Jewish people over the centuries. Of course, most Jews who keep kosher traditionally still adhere to the biblical rules and refrain from eating non-kosher animals and fish – which makes it hard to dine well at Joe’s Stone Crab.

Today, there are various kosher standards – but, when it comes down to it, we must remember that kosher laws were created to insure that we think about what we are eating.  Based upon this, I would urge every single one of us to embrace the essence of keeping kosher.  In today’s society, we know that a lot of what we find on the grocery store shelves and at restaurants are processed foods that, over time, reek havoc on our bodies.  At its core, keeping kosher means treating our bodies as sacred vessels and doing everything in our power to fill our sacred vessel with good stuff and not garbage!  If you approach keeping kosher this way, I would imagine many more people would begin to appreciate the laws that we read about in this week’s Torah portion, even those among us who enjoy a good meal at Joe’s Stone Crab.

I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom – and a Shabbat of healthy eating!