Blessings From Curses

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Curses can become blessings. This is a fundamental Jewish concept that is captured in the song Mah Tovu that we sing at the beginning of every Shabbat morning service. “Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishkenotekha Yisrael/How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel” – these beautiful words that are the perfect blessing to begin a service, words that are from the Torah, were first uttered by Balaam, a prophet hired by a wicked king who despised Israel. The king ordered Balaam to curse the Jewish people. Amazingly, as Balaam opened his mouth to do just this, he spoke the words we call “Mah Tovu”. His mouth was hijacked by God and a curse became a blessing.

Today, curses can still become blessings. I can say this not because I believe that God has the ability to hijack a modern day bad guy’s mouth and make him start speaking words of blessing. I can say this because we have concrete evidence that bad things can, with the godly insight of wise people, do really good things. The radical, new treatment regimen for skin cancer that was published in the The Journal of Clinical Oncology on Tuesday is a perfect case in point. What’s the treatment regimen? Herpes. Yes, you read that correctly. Herpes.

Dr. Kevin Harrington, a Professor of Biological Cancer Therapies at The Institute of Cancer Research, headed the team that discovered that by modifying the Herpes virus, it can be used to attack and kill inoperable melanoma in patients. “We may normally think of viruses as the enemies of mankind, but it’s their very ability to specifically infect and kill human cells that can make them such promising cancer treatments,” said Professor Paul Workman, the CEO of The Institute of Cancer Research. And, thus, we have scientific proof of what Judaism has embraced for centuries: curses can become blessings.

When the words of Mah Tovu came forth from Balaam’s mouth centuries ago, imagine the shock of the evil king who was expecting to hear a powerful curse. While none of us want to be like the king, shocked because we received a blessing when we wanted a curse, we would all love to be shocked by being blessed when we were expecting the worst. May God continue to inspire the scientists, scholars and anyone else who is courageous enough to discover new and incredible ways to shock us by turning life’s curses, viruses and challenges into blessings.

Authenticity: The Key To A Meaningful Bar/Bat Mitzvah

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Last week, I shared with you an article written by my colleague, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, that focused on the innovation that is going on within the Jewish world, particularly surrounding the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. In this article, Chai Tech, our own Online Bar/Bat Mitzvah Preparation Program, was featured. Earlier this month, Ritualwell.org, an online source that allows people to learn about and create Jewish rituals, hosted a #ReimagineBnaiMitzvah Twitter chat. The chat – some of which you can see here – explored various ways that make the Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience more meaningful for B’nai Mitzvah and their families. I am happy to report that most of the innovative ideas that were discussed in the chat are ones that we fully embrace at Ramat Shalom. However, while I certainly take great pride in the creativity that we incorporate into our B’nai Mitzvah services and believe that this creativity adds something special to our services, I don’t believe that it is this creativity that makes Ramat Shalom’s B’nai Mitzvah as powerful as they are.

Tomorrow night, we celebrate Shavuot, the holiday which commemorates the moment Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai. We’ve been preparing for Shavuot for weeks now. As part of this preparation, we are taught to read Pirkei Avot, an ancient collection of Jewish wisdom. In the fourth chapter of this incredible collection, we are taught: “Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it.” As we step back to examine what makes a Bar/Bat Mitzvah service special, we can’t just focus on the vessel, the service itself: the prayers, songs, descriptions of mitzvah projects, readings shared by friends, speeches given by the B’nai Mitzvah and their families. Don’t get me wrong, these words are important! But it takes more than these words to create the energy that we feel at a Ramat Shalom Bar/Bat Mitzvah. It is what is in the words that creates this energy. In Hebrew, we talk about the kavanah of a prayer – the story behind the words. The intensity that we all feel is a result of the kavanah behind everything that is said and done during the service.

So what is the kavanah behind the words shared at a Ramat Shalom Bar/Bat Mitzvah? It is the authentic story of every Bar/Bat Mitzvah that steps foot on our bimah. It is also a desire to truly celebrate the bonds the Bar/Bat Mitzvah shares with his/her family, friends and the Ramat Shalom community. What we do on the bimah is not a performance. It is not a concert or a poetry slam. It’s not about being perfect. Rather, it is about being real. This means different kids do different things on the bimah. Some read Haftarah. Some don’t. Some sing. Some squeak. And it’s all good. Because it’s real, mistakes might very well be made: the Bar/Bat Mitzvah mispronounces a word, the Rabbi calls up the wrong person for an aliyah (yes, it happens!) or your dear aunt completely panics during her Torah reading. And so? We help each other out, laugh and hold hands as we honestly and openly celebrate the sacred rite of passage of a child we love.

Our B’nai Mitzvah are celebrations of relationships. The Cantor and I, along with Beth Michell, our Torah School Director, and Amy Freund and Miriam Lomnitzer, our tutors, are lucky enough to truly connect with each of our students and their families. Our interactions with each other on the bimah are not for show. We know our kids and their families and they know us. The words we all share with each other during the service are a continuation of relationships that were formed slowly, over time. This authenticity is contagious and is picked up on and shared by everyone who joins us for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

As Shavuot begins tomorrow evening, there is not the pomp and circumstance that is associated with the other major Jewish holidays. There is nothing like a Passover seder, a sukkah or a shofar. Yes, on Shavuot, there is cheesecake – but really, there is simply the Torah that we open, study and celebrate on this holy occasion. We don’t need anything else – just the story of our people. The same is true at our B’nai Mitzvah celebrations and, honestly, at any of our Ramat Shalom lifecycle events. We don’t need bells and whistles to make these moments sacred. We just need the story of our people which, of course, includes the unique story of you and your family.

May you find the time to celebrate your authentic story this Shavuot and may we as a community continue to strengthen our relationships with each other, relationships that lie at the heart of everything that is Ramat Shalom.

A Jewish Blueprint For Innovation

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Creativity and change are two fundamental Jewish values.

Next week, we celebrate these values with the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the anniversary of our receiving the Torah from God at Mt. Sinai. The fact that Shavuot does not have a festive meal like Passover or a cool, outdoor hut like Sukkot keeps the holiday from getting the attention it deserves in the liberal Jewish world. The winding down of the school year, final exams, proms, graduations and Memorial Day don’t help either. It is unfortunate that Shavuot is often overlooked because it actually commemorates the most important moment in Jewish history, the experience that defined us as a Jewish nation: the moment we received the rules that taught us how to behave as a people and as individuals. Without the Torah, we would never have been able to come together and function as a community and grow into the incredible civilization that we are today.
What’s interesting is that while the Torah is indeed filled with rules, Kabbalah, or Jewish Mysticism, teaches us that the Torah is much more than a book of rules. It is actually the blueprint of Creation – the tool that God used to create us and the world in which we live. Once God created the world, God decided to give the Torah away. But, when this time came, God did not want the Torah to stop being a creative tool – a tool that could be used to generate new and incredible things. And, so, God gave the Torah to us – not simply to give us rules to live by, but to use as an instrument of real change.

The Talmud teaches us that when Moses went to receive the Torah from God, the angels tried to take it from him. They asserted that the wisdom of the Torah would not be appreciated by humans because we have a tendency to stray from the good and embrace the not-so-good. Moses, however, explained that this is exactly why the Torah must be given to us. The Torah should not simply be studied. It should inspire new ideas. Angels, we are taught, are holy beings and, as such, have no need to change or grow. They are perfect the way they are. We humans, however, are far from perfect. We struggle on a regular basis with difficult choices and living a life of meaning and purpose. The values, teachings and stories in the Torah are intended to push us to to reach higher – to do good. When we allow the Torah to challenge our choices, improve our character and find new ways to bring spirituality into our lives, we become new people, better people. In doing so, we recreate ourselves and, in turn, prove that the Torah remains a blueprint for our ongoing creation.

This is a very exciting time to be a Jew – a time when many of us are opening up the blueprint that was given to Moses at Mt. Sinai and examining it with a fresh, new perspective. New Jewish pathways are being created. Jewish innovation is happening. And I am excited that Ramat Shalom is at the heart of this innovation. I was honored that my colleague, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, the Director of Rabbis Without Borders, featured our Chai Tech Online Bar/Bat Mitzvah Program on MyJewishLearning.com this week. As she says in her article, change is scary. Some suggest that by changing, we are lowering the bar, watering down Judaism, making it too simple. I couldn’t disagree more. By creating new ways for folks to engage with Judaism, we are using the blueprint to build new doorways that allow more people to discover the power of Torah and flourish as a result of being touched by her lessons. In doing so, we are living the lesson of Shavuot. We are keeping Torah alive and allowing it to inspire us as we envision the Judaism of tomorrow.

While I certainly hope you will join us next weekend on Friday and Saturday evenings for our Shavuot celebrations, no matter what, I want each of us to use the days leading up to Shavuot to realize the incredible potential we as a people and as individuals have to grow, change, create and inspire. Push yourself to live your potential over the next several days. When you do so, you will honor our holiday of Shavuot.

Destroying The Fruit Trees: What The Torah Teaches Us About The Baltimore Riots

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When something in society is broken, we are obligated to fix it.  It is a basic Jewish value, captured in the Torah:  “Tzedek tzedek tirdof “ – “Justice, justice you shall pursue!” (Deuteronomy 16:20)   When we stand up to those who are determined to enshrine injustice, the Torah understands how overwhelming this task can be and instructs us accordingly:

Let your hearts not be faint; you shall not be afraid, and you shall not be alarmed, and you shall not be terrified because of them. (Deuteronomy 20:3)

According to the Torah, standing up to the unjust requires that we do everything in our power to “propose peace” (Deuteronomy 20:10) to them and pursue all means to bring about a just and lasting change.  If, after a great deal of effort, we cannot reason with those who seek to keep the scales of society unbalanced and they come after us to do us harm, the Torah insists to us that we have the right to stand up for justice with great strength, “besieging” those who pursue us. (Deuteronomy 20:12)

So yes, the Torah does believe that if there is no justice, there is no peace.  Yes, the Torah also supports the concept of “sticking it to the Man” when “the Man” is truly doing wrong.  Yes, the Torah even supports going to war against those who seek to do us harm and undermine our freedom and safety.  However, the Torah makes it explicitly clear that when we do find ourselves battling the pursuers of injustice we “shall not destroy (their) fruit trees by wielding an ax against them.” (Deuteronomy 20:19)

Whether it be in Baltimore, Ferguson, New York City or any other location where people feel a terrible injustice has been committed, Judaism supports the right of these people to pursue justice. However, our tradition expects that before there is any confrontation, every means to “propose peace” must be tried. And, if a confrontation arises, Judaism demands that no fruit trees be destroyed.  Today, actual fruit trees are hard to come by in the streets of Baltimore and other cities where we have recently seen rioting and looting.  This being said, countless fruit trees were cut down this week in Baltimore.

In the Torah, a fruit tree was many things.  First and foremost it was a source of food.  It was also a source of income for the owner.  It provided shade and beauty.  In addition, the Torah asks: “is the tree of the field a man…” suggesting that fruit trees are symbols for other people.  The looting and rioting that have taken place in our country have destroyed neighborhoods. Grocery stores, pharmacies and other retail outlets that provide customers with life’s necessities and owners with a livelihood have been ransacked.  Boarded windows and burnt cars are left behind.  Innocent civilians and law enforcement officers have been hurt and killed.  Tragically, too many modern-day fruit trees have been cut down.

Pursuing justice is something that we are obligated to do.  Looting, rioting and senselessly destroying property and lives only make the scales of justice even more unbalanced.

As Shabbat begins, may peace prevail and may true justice be experienced by all.