Categories
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Amir Ben Zvi Chabad D'var Torah JDC Kiev Shabbat Ukraine University of Michigan

Shabbat Around the World

I’ve experienced Shabbat in some very interesting places. One of the most memorable Shabbat lunches I can recall was in the home of a Chabad rabbi and his family in Kharkov, Ukraine. This was in August 2005 when I led a small Hillel/JDC mission of University of Michigan students to the Former Soviet Union.The food at that lunch was delicious and the new plates of food seemed to continuously appear throughout the afternoon. As dessert was being served we sang Shabbat zemirot (festive songs) together. The students recognized the traditional songs and began harmonizing. The rabbi asked me to say a few words of Torah and I spoke about the pintele yid – that spark of Judaism that can be found throughout the globe. While the food might be different and some of the customs are unique to that community, the spark is there. How wonderful it is, I explained, for us Americans to travel to the Former Soviet Union in the 21st century and enjoy a warm, spiritual Shabbat, singing the Hebrew songs that are so familiar to us. 

In Parashat Vayakhel (Exodus 35:3), the Torah says, לֹא-תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, בְּיוֹם, הַשַּׁבָּת “Do not light a fire in all your dwellings on Shabbat”. Why is it necessary for the Torah to state settlements in the plural? Shouldn’t it be enough to say that we are forbidden from kindling fire on Shabbat? Why is it necessary to have the designation “throughout your settlements?” After all, the Torah doesn’t add words or letters unnecessarily.

The medieval commentator Abravanel interprets this to mean that the intent of the clause is to apply the prohibition universally; meaning wherever Jews reside. The idea is to demonstrate that the same rule applies regardless of where in the world we’re spending Shabbat. This biblical prohibition stated in this way should remind us that our world is much smaller than we sometimes think. We can observe and celebrate in any community throughout the world and it will feel like Shabbat to us.

We might observe new customs and culinary dishes, but Shabbat is Shabbat. It is a unifying force in Judaism. Shabbat is a standard. We light the Shabbat candles, we recite the kiddush and the motzi, we enjoy delicious meals together, and we conclude with havdallah.

Last month I returned to Ukraine seven-and-a-half years since that first visit. Seated across from me at my table at a kosher restaurant in Kiev was an Israeli man who told me I looked familiar. I laughed and referenced a song I learned as a child, “Wherever You Go There’s Always Someone Jewish.” He laughed and told me that he was serious; he was positive he had met me before. Sure enough, Amir Ben Zvi and his wife Sharon had also been guests at that Chabad rabbi’s home for Shabbat lunch back in 2005. Amir was about to begin his new job for the JDC in Ukraine and was also invited to the Chabad rabbi’s home for lunch. Amir and I reminisced about how enjoyable that experience was and shared an immediate friendship. No matter where we find ourselves in the world, Shabbat is Shabbat.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
D'var Torah Dress Ethics Jewish Values Modesty Nancy Lublin Purim Tallit Values Women of the Wall

You Are What You Wear: Modesty of Dress

One of the highlights of the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Jewish Camping Conference a year ago was the chance for me to get to know Nancy Lublin. I had learned about Nancy several years earlier after reading an article about her mitzvah project that turned into a successful nonprofit company.

I spoke with Nancy, CEO of Do Something for the past ten years, about her recent book Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business, encouraging teen philanthropy, and how Jewish summer camp can instill lifelong entrepreneurial skills in young people. But what I found most interesting in our conversation was how Nancy founded Dress for Success in 1996 with a $5,000 inheritance from her great-grandfather Poppy Max.

Nancy Lublin speaking to Jewish camping professionals (Foundation for Jewish Camp)

Nancy wanted to honor her grandfather’s memory and spirit of philanthropy by using his hard-earned money to help other people blaze new beginnings. With three nuns from Spanish Harlem, Nancy started Dress for Success in New York. She then moved on to found Dress for Success Worldwide, the national support center for all Dress for Success Affiliates. Dress for Success provides interview suits, confidence boosts and career development for women and has served more than 650,000 women around the world. Women are referred to Dress for Success by not-for-profit and government agencies including homeless and domestic violence shelters, immigration services, and job training programs.

What Dress for Success does for thousands of women is a great act of loving kindness, but what I’ve always loved about her start-up philanthropy is the name: “Dress for Success.” How we dress really does lead to our success. Think about what the image we project based on what we wear. Our clothes communicate a lot about our personality and our interests. The dictum that “you are what you wear” is actually true.

This Shabbat, Erev Purim, we read Parashat Tetzaveh. In the Torah portion, Moses is ordered to appoint his older brother Aaron, and Aaron’s sons, to fill the priestly role. And just as last week’s parsha gave the explicit directions for the building of the tabernacle, this week we learn the precise details of the priestly clothing. Modern biblical scholar Nahum Sarna writes that “just as sacred space must be differentiated from profane space, so the occupants of the sacred office must be distinguishable from the laity. Hence, special attire, the insignia of office, is ordained for Aaron, the archetypal High Priest, and for his sons, the priests of lower rank.”

The first part of our parsha is most concerned with the high priest’s unique garb; not only with what Aaron will wear, but also with who will make it. God commands Moses: Next, you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments for consecrating him to serve Me as a priest. It’s not even enough that Aaron will have the most unusual and distinctive garments; God also wants the best designers to fashion his wardrobe — the Ralph Laurens and Donna Karans of the time. And these fashion designers are instructed to use the finest materials to construct this attire — gold, magnificent colorful yarns, and the finest linen around.

Next, God informs Moses of the particular vestments that the priests will wear. The Choshen – the breastplate, the Ephod, a robe, tunic, headdress, and a sash. These garments, as you can imagine, made the priests stand apart from the rest of our ancestors. The Torah goes to great lengths to cross every T and dot every I in describing the priests’ clothing for their distinctive role — colors, lengths, widths, and material were all specified with great care. But this is certainly not the most exciting section of the Torah, so we must ask why all this fashion minutiae? What’s the big deal with the priests’ clothing?

Why is the name of our Moses, the great leader of our people, not mentioned even once in this Torah portion, but instead we know the five materials that went into the production of the yarn to create part of the priest’s garb? The answer I believe is back at the beginning of the parsha when God commands the making of these vestments. What is God’s rationale for these vestments? L’chavod ultif’aret — For dignity and splendor.

L’chavod ultif’aret are two words that are part of the blessings recited after the chanting of the haftarah. The medieval commentator Sforno explains the use of these two words. The vestments, he writes, were for the dignity of God and to lend splendor to the office of the priest so that he would be revered by the people. Elaborating on Sforno’s opinion, the vestments were as much for the dignity of the priests who wore them as they were for God’s dignity. What we wear speaks volumes about us.

The famous computer company IBM had a long-standing dress code in effect at their offices worldwide. Men had to dress in a dark colored suit, could only wear a white dress shirt, and could select a necktie of any conventional color; so long as it was solid – no patterns. For women, it was mostly the same – A dark, solid colored skirt and a white blouse. IBM believed that the way its workforce dressed portrayed the specific image that they wanted associated with their company. Apparently, they held the belief that it’s “the clothing that makes the man.”

And this belief was just as true in the 1990s, as companies like IBM shifted from strict, conservative dress codes to less-formal attire. Casual dress in the workplace became the new trend and “Dress down Fridays” becoming a popular section in most clothing stores. Companies like IBM believe that the way one dresses helps contribute to the way one works, behaves, and acts toward others. It also contributes to the way others view the wearer. When we get dressed in the morning, don’t we think about what type of image we want to portray for that day? Don’t we pick out our clothes for the day based on more than just the weather? What does this t-shirt say about me? Should I wear a traditional tie for that meeting today? What will they think if I wear my expensive shoes to the job interview? Think for a moment about what images the following expressions convey: “Black Tie Required,” “Business Attire,” “Dressy Casual,” “No shirt, no shoes, no service.”

Indeed, the appropriate clothing is for self-dignity as well as for personal splendor, comfort, and warmth. Throughout the generations, the modesty level of our clothing has been an ongoing conversation, although the standards of modesty have no doubt changed. In Judaism, these issues of modesty fall into the category of tzniut, modesty. Tzniut is the point at which our physical appearance and our behavior intersect.

No one could argue that the terms we speak of today in debating what is modest would be foreign to those even a few generations ago. Bare-midriffs, extra-tight t-shirts, and underwear peeking out from under low-cut jeans weren’t forbidden in schools a generation ago because no child would ever think of wearing that to school. But today, all schools have a dress code of some sort. But what does it say about us as a community? Have we forgotten what is appropriate to wear?

The lesson of the clothing of the priests from this week’s Torah portion is that what we wear is actually an extension of us, whether we want that to be true or not. It is an extension of our family. It is an extension of our community. What we wear is representative of who we are, and indeed, where we come from. It speaks volumes about what we stand for and our own level of self-dignity. Styles do change. And society’s attitudes toward standards of proper attire do too. But let us not discount the importance of tzniut or the conversations that we must continue to have about what is considered modest. Let us dress for success. Let us dress for style. And most important, let us dress l’chavod ultif’aret – for dignity and splendor.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
Abraham D'var Torah Egypt Lech Lecha Rashi Wealth

The Lesson of Abraham’s Wealth

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Lech Lecha, we are told of the divine command given to Abraham to leave the land and travel to a new land which God will show him. We are then told about Abraham’s financial status. V’Avram Kaved Meod. And Abram was very rich. Rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold. There is much to be learned from this word kaved, or rich. The word most often used for rich or wealthy in the Torah is ashir. So we must be curious about the choice to use kaved here.

In modern Hebrew, we use the word kaved to mean heavy, as in that sofa is too kaved for me to move. It can also mean a burden. The medieval commentator Rashi mentions this meaning in his commentary on the verse, and adds another meaning of kaved that many of us are familiar with. From the fifth commandment of the Ten Commandments, kabed et avicha v’et imecha – that we should honor our parents – we understand kaved to mean honor or respect. Similarly, from the same root of course is the word for an honor that is given out in synagogue, a kavod. Finally, the word kaved also means liver, the heaviest part of our body. So to review, Abraham, we learn in our parsha this morning is wealthy. We know this from the Hebrew word kaved, which is an unusual choice for wealthy, and also according to the dictionary connotes honor, respect, dignity, seriousness, heaviness, burdensome, taxing, laborious, and liver.

Here it is used to mean that Abraham was weighted down with many possessions because of his wealth. But in the very next verse, we learn that Abraham traveled from the Negev to Beit El “in stages,” l’ma-asav. Rashi tells us that the use of this word means that upon Abraham’s return from Egypt, he took the same route back staying in the same places he had lodged on his way down to Egypt. Rashi points out that while Abraham is wealthier now, he has retained his humility and doesn’t choose to stay in nicer places. Abraham, our patriarch, was not altered by his accumulation of wealth. Recognizing the tendency to be burdened by material wealth, Abraham managed to maintain his kavod when he became kaved. This is not always the case.

As we know from the recent financial meltdown, power and wealth can be burdensome and challenging. In our society, such a vast possession of wealth requires much responsibility and integrity. It catapults people into the public eye, living life in a fishbowl, having every business decision scrutinized, every investment maneuver questioned. There are many advantages to a life of wealth, but it must be done while maintaining kavod – honor.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
Amalek D'var Torah Francis Bacon Hitler Holocaust Ki Tetzei Levirate Marriage Names Purim Torah Yibum Yom Hashoah

Ki Tetzei: Our Names, Our Heritage

As a rabbi, one of my favorite phone calls to receive is from expectant parents who are in search of Hebrew names for their future child. Before even suggesting any potential names, I always preface my response with an explanation of how important names are to us as Jewish people. Our name is our legacy. It is not only our identifying label in the community, but it is also how we will be remembered.

“Crown of a Good Name” by Artist Mordechai Rosenstei

When you go up to the Torah for an aliyah, you are beckoned before the minyan and before God with your moniker including your parents’ names. You are not receiving this kavod (honor) alone, but rather with your entire heritage. In many lifecycle events, our Hebrew name is invoked and thereby our heritage is invoked as well. For our name is more than mere nomenclature, a classifying label – it is who we are, what we stand for, and from where we have come.

In Pirkei Avot, the Teachings of our Sages, R. Shimon taught: “There are three crowns. The crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. But the crown of a good name exceeds them all.” To become a king or a priest, one must be born into this position. However, to achieve the crown of Torah, one must have a quick mind and a sound memory. One must be willing to learn and to grow. Thus, the crown of a good name transcends them all, for it is open to all.

Parashat Ki Tetze ends with the famous commandment to remember what Amalek did to our ancestors and to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Timche et-zecher Amalek mitachat hashamayim. Lo Tishkach. We must at the same time remember what the Amalekites did to our ancestors and also blot out their name. As the commentary in the Etz Hayim translation explains, we are not being commanded here to eradicate all recollection of the Amalekites. Indeed, we are commanded to remember forever what the Amalekites did. We must both remember what they did as well as erase their name. That, the Torah seems to be teaching us, is the ultimate revenge – to eliminate or wipe out a name.

On Purim, when we hear the name of Haman, the descendent of Amalek, read from the Megillah, we literally drown out the name. So too, when we utter the name of Hitler, arguably another descendent of Amalek, we make sure to add the words “yimach shmo,” that his name should be erased. But these stand as negatives; ways to blot out the name of evil individuals. If we look back only a few verses before the mitzvah to eradicate the name of Amalek, we learn of another mitzvah concerning names; but in this instance, it is a positive commandment. It is to carry on the name of an individual – the man who dies childless.

Levirate marriage or yibum is the commandment stating that the brother of a childless husband is obligated to marry his widowed sister-in-law and the first son that she bears shall be accounted to the dead brother that his name should not be blotted out in Israel. Thus, the underlying intention of this mitzvah is that a man’s name should not disappear forever if he dies leaving no children to carry on his name. His legacy will be assured. We learn in the Book of Ruth, when Ruth’s relative Boaz marries the widower Naomi, that yibum is considered the ultimate in loving-kindness.

There is simply no better way to honor ones memory than by perpetuating ones name. Inherent in a person’s name are all of their achievements, their beliefs, and their ethical creed. Indeed, the memory of our loved ones is bound up in their name. When we remember their name, we maintain an enduring nearness to their neshama, to their soul.

On Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – throughout the Jewish community, on college campuses, in Jewish day schools, and in synagogues, the names of all six million Jews who perished during the Shoah are read to show respect to the dead by helping their names live on. Pronouncing these names, the names of those whose lives were cut short during the darkest time in our people’s history, is not only one of the greatest way we can carry on their legacy, but also the greatest way we can ensure that we remember what Amalek did to us and blot out their name. Zakhor, remembrance, can be for both good and evil. In remembering the good, we too, erase the evil.

We understand that while our body will eventually cease to function, our name will continue on. As a community, we have the mitzvah to perpetuate the name, the legacy, of others by carrying their name forward throughout the generations. Francis Bacon, the famous English essayist, lawyer, philosopher, and statesman, once said: “I bequeath my soul to God… My body to be buried obscurely. For my name and memory, I leave it to men’s charitable speeches, and to foreign nations, and the next age.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
Baseball Cecil Fielder D'var Torah Detroit Detroit Tigers Fatherhood Inheritance Leadership Major League Baseball Moses Pinchas Prince Fielder Sports

D’var Torah: Prince Fielder, Inheritance & Fatherhood

I was emotionally moved as I watched Detroit Tigers’ slugger Prince Fielder accept the 2012 Home Run Derby award on Monday night in Kansas City with his two adorable sons proudly standing next to him. But it also struck me as sad that Prince’s father Cecil Fielder wasn’t in that photo op as well.

I still remember back in 1990 when Cecil Fielder (a Detroit Tigers All-Star 1st baseman like his son is today) was the favorite to win the All-Star Game Home Run Derby. Competing against the likes of Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey, Jr., Cecil failed to hit even one homer in the contest that night. This week, Prince Fielder became the first player ever to win the Home Run Derby in both leagues (he won in 2009 as a Milwaukee Brewer too).

There’s no question that Prince Fielder inherited the gift of hitting the long ball from his father. This week’s Torah Portion, Parshat Pinchas, is all about inheritance and succession. Moses was an impressive leader of the Jewish people in the desert as they made their journey to Israel. This week, however, we learn that Moses will not lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Although he has worked tirelessly to be a great leader and inspirational figure, his career will end before the reward of entering the land with his people.

Cecil Fielder led the Detroit Tigers in the early 1990s, but didn’t succeed in taking his team all the way to the “Promised Land” of Major League Baseball — the World Series. Cecil Fielder’s numbers with the Tigers are impressive. On the last day of the Tigers’ season in 1990, Cecil hit his 50th and 51st home runs to become the 11th player in ML history to hit 50 homers in a season. But baseball is a team sport and while individual achievement is recorded into the annals of baseball history and celebrated, the ultimate reward is winning the World Series.

And that’s where inheritance and succession factor in. Moses wasn’t permitted the merit of taking his team, the Israelites, into the Promised Land. However, his inheritance was bequeathed to Joshua who would succeed Moses as the leader of the people. Joshua understood his role and he gave honor and respect to his predecessor. Without Moses there is no Joshua. That is how inheritance and succession work. Moses laid the groundwork and Joshua was able to complete the task.

I thought of the Moses-Joshua relationship and the Torah’s concept of inheritance and succession as I watched Prince Fielder hoist his Home Run Derby trophy high above his head. His sons flanked him on either side. His father was no where in sight. It is from his father that Prince has acquired the awesome ability to use a wooden bat and hit a small ball to distances surpassing 450 feet. Cecil wasn’t able to take his team into the Promised Land, but his progeny might be the leader to do it. Prince has that inheritance. He succeeds his father as the home run slugging first baseman who can lead his people to victory.

With Prince Fielder at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Phoenix in 2007.

Seeing Cecil Fielder proudly standing next to his son and two grandsons Tuesday night would have made that photo even better. But there’s a fractured relationship between the father and the son. No one knows for certain why Prince and Cecil don’t talk, but the dynamics of a father-son relationship can be complicated. Perhaps the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship are better documented, but they are no more challenging.

For Prince, it might have been difficult growing up as the son of the local baseball hero. For Cecil, it might be difficult watching his son succeed where he came up short in his own career. The strained relationship between Prince Fielder and his dad is rumored to be about money. After Cecil declared bankruptcy following a failed marriage, gambling debts, and poor real estate investment deals, there’s word that he took part of his son’s signing bonus with the Milwaukee Brewers. Whatever the case, life is too short to harp on such things. Reports indicate that Cecil might have taken $200,000 of his son’s $2.4 million signing bonus back in 2002. Prince Fielder’s current contract with the Detroit Tigers is for nine-years and a total of $214 million. That $200,000 a decade ago is meaningless today.

Earlier this year Cecil had some critical words to say about his son. “As a father, of course you’re proud of what your son’s been able to accomplish on the field, but as a father also you worry about how he is growing as a man, how — I want to say this correctly –how he is communicating with everybody that had something to do with how he got to where he is. And that part of my son, I think we’re all a little disappointed.”

After Prince signed with the Tigers this year, both Cecil and Prince have been quoted as saying the relationship has gotten a little better. And that’s good. As Mitch Albom wrote after Opening Day this past April:

Cecil Fielder always will be a part of Detroit sports history, just as his son now will make his own name in it. It does seem sad that the father watched the game alone in Atlanta, while the son played in Detroit. But that is between them. “I’ll get up there to see a game,” Cecil said before hanging up. “It’ll all work out. Just needs time.”

Indeed, it is between them. The father and the son. The succession of leadership and the inheritance of that big swing. I remain hopeful that both men will let bygones be bygones and move forward. Cecil’s pride should come from watching his son do what he was not able to in a Tigers’ uniform. And Prince’s respect and admiration for his father should come from an appreciation for the legacy that Cecil left as a Detroit Tiger and for the talent his father has bequeathed to him as his inheritance.

At the end of a McDonald’s commercial (below) featuring Cecil and Prince Fielder that aired in Detroit back in the 1990s, Prince looks up at his dad and apologizes for striking him out. Cecil looks down at his son with pride and says, “Oh, that’s okay son.” Maybe the two men will exchange similar words in the near future. So, while I wish Cecil was part of that awesome photo op on Tuesday night at the Home Run Derby, I’m willing to hold out to see the father celebrate with his son at a future trophy presentation. They deserve each other.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
Animation Balak D'var Torah Donkey Dreamwords Exodus Harry Potter Israel Jewish Moab Morals Movies Parshat Balak Shrek Shrek Movies Torah

Shrek, Harry Potter & Parshat Balak

Several years ago I sat in a movie theater with my then three-year-old son and my father. I couldn’t get over the fact that all three of us were enjoying the same movie so much. Each of us represents a different generation and therefore has different tastes and different senses of what is funny. But we each enjoyed sitting in that theater for two hours watching the animated feature “Shrek the Third” on the big screen. We each found the movie entertaining, humorous, and memorable. The “Shrek” series has succeeded in entertaining a multi-generational audience through its fun story and animation for the kids that includes puns and humor aimed at adults.

Dreamworks Animation SKG

Just as “Shrek” has encouraged multi-generational enjoyment at the movie theater, the “Harry Potter” book series has fostered multi-generational literary enjoyment and commitment to reading. Author J.K. Rowling has created books that appeal to very young children as well as sophisticated adults. Parents have found as much pleasure in these tales of wizards and sorcerers as their kids. And the bond that is created when parent and child can discuss literature together is priceless.


The three “Shrek” movies and the “Harry Potter” novels share a strong connection in several important ways to this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak. The most striking connection between the animation and the parashah, of course, is the talking donkey in the Torah narrative. The link between “Harry Potter” and the parashah is in the magic, spells, curses, and sorcery.

When Balak, the King of Moab, saw the Israelite victory over the Amorites, he was alarmed. He commissioned Balaam, the world’s most powerful wizard, to put a curse on the Israelites for Balak to drive them out of the land. God tried to dissuade Balaam from cursing the Israelites, a people blessed from the time of the Patriarchs, whose divine blessing cannot be reversed. Balaam refused, but was later asked to reconsider his mission. God allows him to proceed so long as he does what God tells him.

Riding his donkey, Balaam comes upon an angel of God but does not want to stop. The donkey thinks otherwise and is beaten for trying to break for God’s messenger, whereupon God opens the donkey’s mouth for the donkey to verbally berate Balaam. Balaam then offers three oracles of blessing to the Israelites, including the well-known blessing, “How fair are your tents O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel.”

There is much to be learned from this narrative. Most notably is the power of God to ensure that the Israelite nation remains blessed no matter how badly someone wants to curse them. What is remarkable about the story, however, is that appeal it has to both young and old. The basic story of a magician riding a talking donkey who is hired to curse a people seems to be taken right from a fairy tale. However, the deeper concept (the subtext) of the story is a powerful theological statement about the omnipotence of God and the eternally blessed nature of the people Israel.

In the brilliance of the Torah, the narrative captivates diverse generations just as the “Shrek” movies and the “Harry Potter” series do. There is truly appeal for everyone. This is a lesson for us. We need to make Torah study in particular and Judaism in general attractive to young and old alike. We do this with our Passover seders each year and we should strive to do it year round.

There are “Shivim Panim LeTorah” (seventy faces of the Torah) meaning that the Torah can be interpreted in a plethora of ways. This also means that there are enough ways to make the Torah accessible and captivating to all ages. Some stories of the Torah might already be written as exciting narratives for young people as well as adults, such as the Flood, the tales of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and the Exodus. Some, like the Balak narrative, might even have all the elements of a fantasy. For those sections of the Torah that do not automatically present themselves as intriguing for young people, it is up to the adults to translate the text into exciting drama. Through midrash, many texts have already come to life for our youth.

If you haven’t already seen the Shrek movies, go see them. And even if you’ve seen them, I encourage you to see them again with your children and/or grandchildren so that we may all seek out the multi-generational appeal of Talmud Torah. When the different generations spend time being entertained and learning together, in the words of our Torah, our people and dwellings will truly be blessed.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
Aaron Anger Chukat D'var Torah Domestic Abuse Domestic Violence Hitting JCADA Jewish Women Leadership Marriage Moses Spousal Abuse Temper Torah Violence Women

Domestic Violence is Real (Chukat)

In this week’s parsha, Chukat, Moses is once again feeling the stress of leadership. Tired and quickly losing hope following the death of his sister Miriam, the Israelites complain to Moses that they would have rather died in Egypt. They go so far as to wish they had died a horrible death along with those punished for joining Korach’s rebellion. They grumble that they were happier during their slave years in Egypt, where at least they had certain assurances compared to their current nomadic experience. They protest that they have been brought to a wretched place with no good food to eat or water to drink.

To produce water for the people the Lord commands Moses and his brother Aaron to assemble the community and order a rock to yield its water for the Israelites to drink. Rather than obeying God’s order verbatim, Moses takes his rod and strikes the rock twice producing drinking water. Immediately, Moses is condemned by God to die in the wilderness rather than being allowed to marshal his troops all the way to the Promised Land “because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people.”

This certainly seems a harsh punishment for Moses’s actions, but upon deeper examination there is much to learn from both the mistake and the punishment. Rashi comments that the double striking of the rock was unnecessary and proved insulting to the sanctity of God by diminishing the greatness of the miracle. A midrash explains that the sin of Moses was not merely the physical act of striking the rock, but also that he lost control of his temper during Israel’s rebellion. The commentaries of Maimonides and Samson Raphael Hirsch concur that the severe punishment was for losing patience with the Israelites and striking the rock twice in frustration. In the Talmud we find the lesson that “When a prophet (like Moses) loses his temper, his gift of prophecy abandons him.”

Several excuses can be made in defense of Moses’ action. Clearly the leadership of such a complaining nation in the hot desert grew taxing on Moses, raising his stress level and making it more difficult to reason with the Israelites. Further, he did have the best interest of the people in mind when answering their call for more drinking water. However, he allowed his emotions to get the better of him and resorted to hitting rather than speaking. While Moses hit an inanimate object rather than speaking to it, his action should alert us to a serious problem today.

Domestic violence occurs in Jewish families at about the same rate of 15% as in the general community. However, studies demonstrate that Jewish women tend to stay in abusive relationships two or three times longer than those in the general population. The misnomer that domestic abuse is not a Jewish concern further exacerbates the problem by discouraging abused women from reporting the abuse to others.

Rather than speaking to each other about difficult issues within the relationship, many partners (mostly men according to statistics) resort to violence. Oftentimes, men blame their abusive actions on stress from work and they allow their emotions to impair their better judgment. Regardless of how demanding one’s life may seem with weighty responsibilities at home and at work, resorting to abuse is never acceptable. The lesson of Moses aptly demonstrates this for us. His punishment was indeed severe, but so is the message it sends to our community. It is always better to use words than to hit.

For more information on domestic abuse in the Jewish community, visit www.jcada.org.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
D'var Torah Korach Leadership Prayer Spirituality Tallit Torah

Korach Challenges the Leadership of Moses with a Tallit

This D’var Torah for Parashat Korach was published in the Detroit Jewish News:

The Tallit: A Reminder of Our Relationship With God

Hanging in the back of my closet is a beautiful tallit that was hand-woven in Ethiopia. This colorful prayer shawl was purchased by my grandmother several years ago when the renowned “Mitzvah Man” Danny Siegel visited Adat Shalom Synagogue. The tallit is waiting in my closet until my oldest son becomes a bar mitzvah and, God willing, my grandmother can present it to him as a gift.

The tallit is a fascinating garment. There are many different styles and fashions of the tallit that we see being worn at synagogue during prayer services, but the most important component to the tallit are the fringes that hang from the four corners.

The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes the following about the tallit:

Whoever put on a tallis when he was young will never forget:
taking it out of the soft velvet bag, opening the folded shawl,
spreading it out, kissing the length of the neckband (embroidered
or trimmed in gold). Then swinging it in a great swoop overhead
like a sky, a wedding canopy, a parachute…

Whoever has put on a tallis will never forget:
When he comes out of a swimming pool or the sea,
he wraps himself in a large towel, spreads it out again
over his head, and again snuggles into it close and slow,
still shivering a little, and he laughs and blesses.

In Parashat Korach, Moses’ cousin Korach mounts a rebellion against him. Korach argues that he has as much right to lead the Israelites as Moses or Aaron, who are in the same generational line on the Levite family tree.

The tallit plays an interesting role in this biblical story of mutiny. The Korach narrative begins with the words Vayikach Korach, which come immediately following God’s instructions regarding the laws of tzitzit, the fringes with a blueish/purpleish cord (a p’til tekhelet) that are commanded to be attached to ones tallit. Each four-cornered garment must have four tzitziyot hanging from each corner. Midrash Tanchuma notices the words Vayikach Korach – “Korach took” and imagines what Korach took by associating that phrase to the section preceding it.

The Midrash imagines that what Korach took were the words from above in the text concerning tzitzit. The Midrash presents a story in which Korach tries to embarrass Moses by challenging him with a difficult question. He says, “You told us to put tekhelet on the tzitzit, tell me if the tallit is entirely made up of tekhelet, would such a tallit still require four tzitzit?” Moses replies that it would still require tzitzit.”

Korach then responds with a challenge, questioning the fact that four strings of tekhelet can allow you to wear a tallit, but a garment made entirely of tekhelet cannot be exempted from this restriction?” Korach isn’t simply challenging Moses’ authority, but also mocking him, and by extension mocking God’s Torah.

Korach uses the tallit, a holy ritual object, for a negative purpose. The tallit is a ritual garb that shows that the Jewish people are a holy nation of priests. Korach uses the tallit to make Moses look silly. He uses the tallit and tzitzit to undermine Moses’ authority.

Whether Korach was correct or not in challenging Moses’ authority, he was wrong for using a holy garment for the purpose of mocking the Israelite leader. The tallit is a reminder for us. It is used during prayer as a sign of our relationship with God through the commandments.

When we wear the tallit, we should look down at its fringes, the tzitzit, and be reminded of God’s love for us and of God’s gift of the Torah. We should also wear it proudly and let it serve as a reminder of how Moses and the Israelites did not allow Korach and his gang to overthrow their leadership.

Each morning when we wrap ourselves in our tallit let it serve to show that Korach was defeated and that the tallit should not be used for such negativity. Let us consider the words of Yehuda Amichai and be ever cognizant of the ritual of tallit – from taking it out, to folding it and putting it back in its bag.

The tallit that I wear on Shabbat has an additional special meaning for me. This white tallit was a gift from the Jewish Theological Seminary upon my ordination as a rabbi. Like any tallit it has stories to tell. It has significant meaning because it reminds me of my experience in rabbinical school. It also brings to mind the many life-cycle events when I was wrapped in its embrace.

The tallit is a beautiful way for us to wrap ourselves in God’s embrace and be reminded of God’s love for us. Korach’s error was in using the tallit to undermine Moses’ authority and publicly humiliate him. Let us use the tallit for good. Let us wrap ourselves in the tallit and give thanks for leadership rather than trying to weaken it.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
Black-Jewish Relations D'var Torah Leadership Moses Torah

Action More Than Words

In this week’s Torah portion called Vaera, the Lord speaks to Moses, saying, “Go and tell Pharaoh King of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.” However, Moses protests. He raises doubts that the people will listen to him. He uses a kal vachomer – the hermeneutical device often used by the rabbis in midrashic literature. Applying the outcome from a minor case to a major case, the formula is “If X, then all the more so Y.” Moses says to God, “The Israelites [my own people] would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech?” If his own people will not listen to him because of an inability to speak well, then how can God expect Pharaoh to listen to Moses’ demands?

This is not the first time that Moses appeals to God using his speech impediment as an excuse. In last week’s parsha, Moses claims Lo ish d’varim anokhi – “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant.” Ki khvad peh u’khvad lashon anokhi – “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

God negotiates with Moses finally offering his brother Aaron as Moses’ mouthpiece to convey the message to the people. Yet Moses remains the central guiding figure standing at the helm of the Israelite nation. One not familiar with the rest of the Biblical Narrative might presume that Moses’ incompetence in public speaking would immediately disqualify him for the role of leader of the Israelites. Thus, regardless of how we understand Moses’ speech impediment or its negative effect on his self-confidence, we should consider the fact that the Jewish people’s leader par excellence was not an effective speaker. And it did not matter.

Moses says, “I am not a man of words.” So, how is he such a successful leader? He is a man of action. Moses says, “I am slow of speech.” What does he mean by this? He is a man of justice. He might have physical disabilities or limitations precluding him from eloquently conveying a message, but it does not deter him from demonstrating strong and charismatic leadership abilities in other ways. What Moses lacks in oratorical skill, he makes up for in his action, and in his pursuit of justice.

This past week our nation commemorated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the anniversary of his birthday. Dr. King was one of humanity’s greatest orators. He could steer an audience’s emotions with his booming voice, with his carefully crafted words, with his memorable sound bites. And yet, it was his acts of social justice that ultimately made him the great leader that he was. Many of us have seen the famous photographs of Dr. King walking arm-in-arm with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at the march in Selma Alabama. Heschel famously commented that on that day, he was “praying with his feet.”

Letter from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Rabbi Seymour Siegel thanking
him for his honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary on July 3, 1968

Equally moving was the time King and Heschel, two modern masters of words, walked together in silence to Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in protest of the war in Vietnam. They laid a wreath in pledge to lo yilmedu od milchama – that humankind would “no longer know war.” They certainly could have movingly expressed their feelings with words, but it was more powerful to resort to action. They let their actions do the speaking.

We should be curious as to why God does not perform a miracle and correct Moses’ speech impediment. After all, this is a God who only moments later causes miraculous plagues to triumph the Egyptians and opens the sea for our ancestors to cross. The answer must be that actions speak louder than words. Moses leads by example. He leads by doing.

This should become a powerful message of American Judaism. We have the moral imperative to strengthen our social action initiatives. We must apply Jewish ethics to contemporary issues pursuing social justice. From the words in our Tradition, tzedek tzedek tirdof (only justice shall you pursue), we must make it our ethical responsibility to make social action one of our highest priorities. Rabbi Shammai teaches in Pirkei Avot, “Say Little Do Much.” Not everyone is a great speaker. But that should not be a hindrance. Be a “doer.” You can change the world.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller
Categories
D'var Torah Death Ethical Wills Jewish Law Torah Values

Vayechi: The Gift of An Ethical Will

In 1997, when Mitch Albom published his now famous Tuesdays with Morrie, he essentially presented three gifts. The first, of course, was his gift to society. Albom, a Detroit sportswriter who I’ve grown up reading, shared the inspiring wisdom of his college professor Morrie Schwartz. Publishing this book was also a gift to himself as he now has a memoir of his mentor’s lessons.

The third gift that Albom gave through writing this book was the gift of an ethical will for his beloved professor. Albom penned his old professor’s legacy of words. He served as a trusted biographer, an inquisitive interviewer, listening intently to Morrie’s story so that it will not soon be forgotten. Through Albom, Morrie Schwartz was able to leave his family and friends with a vivid image of him. I never met the man, but after reading the book (twice!), I have images of him laughing, dancing, and philosophizing in my head. Imagine how reading this book brings him back to life for those who knew him intimately.

For Morrie Schwartz, Mitch Albom did not merely write a “book.” He penned his ethical will on his behalf. Writing an ethical will is not a new idea. In this week’s Torah reading, we learn of the first ethical will when our patriarch Jacob called his sons together and said to them, Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come. Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father. He then spoke his ethical will to each of his sons, one at a time. He told them what he expected of them, what he learned in his own life, and what his blessing was for them.

There are three types of wills. The first is the most common one called a “Last Will and Testament.” In this legal type of will, usually drawn up by an attorney, the estate distributes material possessions after the individual’s death. It is in this will that you state to whom you would leave custody of your children, where your money will go, who gets the rare stamp collection, the bowling trophies, the Bob Dylan records, and so on.

Another type of will that is also of great importance is a living will. In a living will, one makes advance decisions about medical care in the event they should become incapacitated. With advances in medicine, it is crucial that we spend some time considering what our wishes would be should we find ourselves debilitated with an incurable illness. A wonderful source for guiding us through this complicated and challenging matter is Clal’s guide to palliative care entitled Embracing Life & Facing Death.

Ethical wills are not legal documents as compared to living wills and your last will and testament. In your ethical will, you decide how you want to be remembered. Rather than bequeathing material possessions to your survivors, you bestow to them the deeds and ideals by which you want others to remember you. Mitch Albom gave his friend an enormous gift by essentially publishing Morrie’s ethical will on his behalf, but the rest of us will not have a talented writer like Mitch Albom to do this for us. And so, we must take on the responsibility of writing our own ethical will — our legacy for our progeny.

A famous ethical will was composed by Nachmanides, a 13th century Jewish scholar and biblical commentator who lived in Spain. Late in his life he composed an ethical will to his son, writing, “Accustom yourself to speak in gentleness to all men, at all times. Thus will you be saved from anger, the fertile cause of sin… Remove anger from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh.” He concludes with, “Read this Letter once a week, and be as regular in carrying out its injunctions, by its aid walking forever after the Lord, blessed be He; that thou mayest prosper in all thy ways, and be held worthy of all the good which is treasured up for the righteous.” Nahmanides’ ethical will to his son is so moving that it is actually included in many editions of the prayer book.

Some might wish to include practical advice in their ethical wills. Moses Sofer, known as the Hatam Sofer, included the following in his ethical will to his children, “Be strong and courageous in diligent and penetrating study of God’s law. Establish groups for the dissemination of Torah, and promote activities for Torah among the populace. If you can do only a little, then do that little with utmost devotion.” In our ethical will, we might explain why we were philanthropic with certain causes in the hope that our children will continue that pattern of giving tzedakah. Perhaps there were certain life lessons we learned, mistakes we don’t want our children to repeat, and secrets we want to share.

In our day and age, we simply pick up the phone to communicate with friends and family or send simple text messages and chats. Pen and paper letter writing is a thing of the past today. Therefore, composing an ethical will can be a very challenging task. And yet, it can be a cathartic endeavor as well. It can be an opportunity to sit down and explore those lessons you wished you had taught during your life, but did not have the time. You might think you are going to be disappointed discovering all the things you wished you did in your life, only to realize how much you actually accomplished.

Take the example of Jacob in this week’s Torah portion and give the gift of an ethical will to your loved ones long after you’re gone. They’ll be thankful for the gift.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller