Dear readers,

I am excited to share that I have been invited to join an esteemed group of colleagues whose blogs, podcasts, and more reside on the JCastNetwork. You can still follow me, and find many others to learn from at this new location: http://jcastnetwork.org/ppp/

Visit today and you will find the first of my monthly posts focused on the Hebrew month – http://jcastnetwork.org/ppp/reflections-in-the-mirror-and-in-our-lives/

I hope you will keep reading, commenting, and sharing.

L’shalom,

Iris Koller

 

 

 

 

This week’s parsha, Ki Teitzei, reminds us of how we are to behave as we go out into the world and interact with others. Whether friends, family, acquaintances or those Torah refers to as “enemies,” we are to keep others’ needs in mind with each breath and step.

 As I read the portion this week I was reminded not only of our code of behavior, but also of the many roles and responsibilities each of us has in life. The parsha speaks of our responsibilities as parents, as neighbors, as spouses, siblings, conquerors, children, and individuals in relationship with G-d.

 Yesterday I participated in the first meeting of one of the program committees of our agency. As I prepared for this meeting, I thought about who would be joining us around the table. Some had been involved with the professional development work of the Friedman CJE for a long time; others were joining us anew. Some had been consumers of our services, others lay leaders in a local institution. We had, I knew, intentionally invited a diverse group.

Yet, I knew that none of those who would be joining us truly only held one role. As the parsha reminds us, we all wear many different “hats” in life. We do not “check one hat at the door” when we step into another. These virtual “hats we wear” are never off of our heads or out of our thoughts.

What we learn, think, and say is always impacted by our collective experiences and responsibilities. These hats serve as lenses, and it is, I think, helpful to occasionally pause and remind ourselves and share with others the roles and perspectives we bring to our work.

 So, as we began the meeting we had paper hat cut-outs around the table. We asked each member of the group to take a pile and invited them to label each cutout with the “hats” they wear. Telling the stories of our hats became our introduction.

We heard much from each member of our group; things we never would have learned had we only asked people to introduce themselves in a more traditional way. This brief activity fostered the start of real relationships, which we will need as we wrestle with big questions in the months ahead.

After the meeting people did not head for home nor did they spend their time together re-analyzing the meeting. There was, instead, the buzz of friendly conversation spurred by the hats introduction.  Someone had a job lead for someone else because of the knowledge gained through our unique introductions.

Our community is strengthened when we take time to learn about each other. Our collective wisdom is all the richer because of the many “hats” we bring to our work together. May we always ensure we take the time to do so for Jewish life is truly all about relationships.

 

 

“I hate my thighs.” “My bangs just won’t fall right.” “I need to earn more money.” “When did my hairline move so far back?” “I need to exercise.” “My family deserves more of my time.”  “My pores are too large.” “If only I had the skills for a better job.”

The list goes on and on and many of us would use stronger language than I wrote above. If you ask anyone, man or woman, (though you might need to ask men privately) they will tell you all they do not like about their lives, their actions or their bodies. We are far quicker to identify our life’s blemishes than to acknowledge our positive attributes. Yet, we do not give up, give in, or walk away from moving forward in life.

Near the beginning of this week’s parsha¸ there is a single line of text that reads “You shall not sacrifice to Adonai your G-d, a bull or a sheep in which will be any injury, any bad thing, because that is an offensive thing of Adonai your G-d.” (Deut. 17:1, translation by Richard Elliott Friedman).

Parshat Shoftim, before this line, speaks of our need to appoint judges and be fair in our decisions. After verse 17:1, the text goes on to speak of avoiding idol worship, cities of refuge, and other rules of behavior.

I have pondered this line this week, and wondered what exactly is offensive to Adonai. Is it the fact that we would sacrifice something less than perfect, or is it that we would consider removing from our world through sacrifice something less than ideal? I s G-d criticizing defects or reminding us that we must learn to accept that we and all of G-d’s creations are truly less than perfect?

G-d will not take from our midst all that is less than perfect; we must learn to accept imperfection in ourselves and in others. It is a reminder that all life is a gift and that each day brings us the opportunity to view ourselves and our circumstances through a lens of acceptance and abundance or of frustration and scarcity.

In this month of Elul, as we begin to reflect upon our failings, missteps and missed opportunities, let us also reflect on the many gifts that surround us. May we always see the beauty and grace that surrounds us and the unique talents others have to offer and may we always be grateful for this gift of life.

This week in Torah, begins with the word r’eih (רְאֵה) “see.” We are reminded to see the world around us, and to see the choices of others and the consequences of our own actions.

The parsha begins with Adonai speaking in a construct that is not part of the English language – the second person plural. Unless you come from Brooklyn and speak in the language of “yous guys” or speak the southern “y’all y’all,” we don’t have a way to easily express the difference between speaking to “you” and a collective communal “you all.”

When we read or hear the words that begin this parsha in English we hear, “See: I am putting in front of you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing when you’ll listen to the commandments of Adonai, your G-d, that I command you today and the misfortune if you won’t listen to the commandments of Adonai, your G-d…”

Yet, in the Hebrew every time you hear the word “you” we must substitute “you all” or “community”.. so instead we would hear  “See: I am putting in front of this community  today a blessing and a curse: the blessing when this community  will listen to the commandments of Adonai, your G-d, that I command you all today and the misfortune if this community  chooses not to listen to the commandments of Adonai, your G-d…” 

In 21st century America a fair number of Jews will reject this sense of one’s actions immediately leading to rewards or curses from G-d. Yet, if we read it with the correct pronoun reference – of a plural “you” there is a somewhat different message.

We are being reminded that free will leaves us with two choices – the blessings, when we, as a collective community, make choices that take into account the impact on others and community norms… and misfortune if we make choices that destroy rather than strengthen the community.

From Torah forward, life is really “all about relationships.” What we do impacts other people; conversely the choices of others impact our actions, our feelings, and our lives. While we may not take literally the individual reward/punishment connection, we do know that when community members are intentional in their efforts to nurture and strengthen the collective whole and those who are part of the community, the community thrives in ways that go well beyond financial. The reverse is also true.

One of the “hot books” among Jewish professionals this summer is Ron Wolfson’s Relational Judaism. It is a wonderful book that I encourage all to read and to share and discuss with others.

Ron shares two important questions in the book. I want to share them and then add two more for your consideration. The first is a question often posed by Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of IKAR, a Los Angeles congregation; the second comes from the work of community organizing.

1. What gets you out of bed in the morning – eager to face the day ahead?

2. What keeps you up at night?

  • 3. How do the answers to these two questions impact your work?
  • 4. And, as you consider your responses to the three questions above, what is one change you might make to sleep better and waken eager to engage?

These questions give me pause. They also make me eager to be in dialogue with others. I know I will be discussing them with family, friends and colleagues. I look forward to us starting a discussion here as well. I look forward to your comments and to us all growing from them.

Shabbat shalom.

This week we read Parshat V’etchanan. The portion includes the words of the first paragraph of the V’Ahavta, the text that follows the Sh’ma in our liturgy. We are reminded to speak and act in ways that “live Torah” at home and out in public, from the time we awaken until the time we lay our heads down to sleep at night.

Simple? Hardly. Have you ever made it through a day without making some unnecessary and less than complimentary comment about a friend, family member, or co-worker? Do you always wait patiently in a traffic jam or do you sometimes sneak along the next lane and try to cut in at the last minute, stealing time from other patient drivers and passengers? Have you been endlessly patient with your children and/or spouse today? Do you speak out against every injustice and care for the hungry or elderly in your community?

If you are like me you are sighing, shaking your head, and only wishing you could provide the “appropriate response” to each of the questions above. While I am sure that those of you reading this act with exceptional grace much of the time, I am guessing that at this moment you are suddenly far more focused on those moments where you might have missed the mark.
We are, however, only human. Just as our ancestors before us, we continue to try, misstep, and then must try again. Our goal is simple – to do better today than we did yesterday and to do better tomorrow than we did today. Dr. Seuss reminded us of our free will and power to make a difference when he wrote “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.”

Our morning liturgy reminds us that we awaken each morning with a pure, renewed soul. The V’ahavta (Deuteronomy 6:5-9) reminds us that beyond wearing t’fillin, we can metaphorically bind the lessons of Torah upon our hands and keep its teachings between our eyes, guiding our every action throughout the day.

Will we listen to that still small voice inside of us, acting as G-d’s partner on this earth? The reminders are there; the choice is ours to make. May we choose more wisely with every step.

As we come to the end of the tales of our wanderings through the wilderness – the last readings in the Book of Numbers – I find once again a richness of topics to explore. Yet, I really don’t want to talk about the things that have been discussed so many times before – issues of the role of women in Torah described by the ability of men to annul the vows of women or the requirements of marriage placed on the daughters of Z’laph’had; the battle against the Midianites and whether Moses or Adonai made the decision to kill the women and male children; or the statutes taught about punishment for murder and the cities of refuge.

Instead I want to focus on the end of this week’s reading – the double Parshiot of Mattot and Masei. As the portionsand the Book of B’Midbar end, the Jewish people are finishing their 40 years of wanderings. They have faced their last battle and are getting ready to enter the land of Israel. It is the beginning of a new wilderness for them; one for which they have been prepared through years of ever changing experiences and constant teachings. The text (Numbers 36:13) ends as follows: These are the mitzvot (the commandments) and the mishpatim (the statutes) that Adonai commanded by the hand of Moses to the children of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan-Jericho.

It is an interesting ending, for when thinking of Adonai transmitting the mitzvot, one typically thinks of the Sinai experience. And, indeed in the end of the 3rd book of Torah – Vayikra – we find the following closing statement: (Leviticus 27:34) These are the mitzvot that Adonai commanded Moses for the children of Israel in Mount Sinai.

It’s important to note the subtle difference in these two statements – at Mount Sinai, we were given the commandments; by the end of our journey through the wilderness we had gained the statutes, as well  – the details that helped us learn to put the commandments into action in our daily lives.

It is a reminder to us all that just stating the rules is often not enough. At Mount Sinai, Adonai first shared the commandments – the big picture rules. He then went on, as we read in parshiot such as Kedoshim, to detail some of the ways we should behave in our day-to-day lives. Yet, even those details did not cover all possible situations, so for the next 38 years of wandering the mitzvot and mishpatim continued to be given. Along the way, we were also told to follow many chukim – behaviors that do not seem to have a logical explanation, yet one does them out of love for the rule giver.

As parents we cannot just say to our children “be a mensch” when they are born or when they first step out of our door and expect that this one statement will get them through life successfully. Instead, over time and in many different situations, we need to provide the mishpatim – the specific detailed rules that support such an overall “commandment.” We need to show them and to tell them how to be a mensch, helping them over the bumps in the road. We must help them find the path when it seems so overgrown and wild in front of them.

At the same time, as hard as it is, we also need to let them see and take some of their own steps through the overgrowth, for they will never understand how to use the rules as a guide if we clear every path for them. There are times we need to let our children stumble and experience the consequences. Then we need to be there to help them up, move beyond the misstep, finding gentle ways to remind them of the rules as they go forward.

We cannot expect them to find their way blindly, nor can we expect that we will always be there to clear the path for them. Like Adonai, as parents we need to teach the rules in enough different ways and provide enough experiences for our children to internalize the rules so they can use them as a guide for their actions. Hopefully they will have also learned that we will always be there, if they want to reach out, to help them figure out what to do next. Our lessons, along with the ever present Adonai, will always be part of the still, small voice that they hear throughout their lives.

As we watch our children grow and move into their own wildernesses, we can only hope and pray that we have done our job well.

Kein yehih ratzon – may it be so.

Our tradition teaches that we are each endowed with three “levels” of the soul. The deepest, innermost level is the neshama – the spark or ember deep inside – that is given by G-d. It is the neshama that we speak of in Hebrew in the liturgy when we recite, “The soul that you have given me, O G-d, is pure!”

That ember is brought to life, so to speak, by the ruach, meaning spirit or breath – in this case the spirit or breath of Adonai. Just as a fire can only burn if there is air, our neshama can only come to life if we connect to Adonai in some way, so that we can feel that special breath.

Surrounding the flame is the level of soul known as the nefesh. You can think of this as the hurricane glass surrounding the candle. The nefesh is the level of the soul that, in essence, connects the spirit and physical parts of our selves.

When our actions reflect our G-dly spirit, the “glass” of the nefesh is bright and clear; when our actions are less than “G-dly,” the glass begins to cloud as the connection between spirit and action becomes less strong. Over time, the glass can become quite dirty and the spaces that allow the “breath of air” to flow through to fan the ember of the neshama can become filled with soot, making it harder and harder for one to connect with his/her spirit.

In Chapter 27 of the Book of Numbers Adonai tells Moses to head up the mountain to see the land that is being given to b’nai Yisrael. Once he has seen The Land, he is told, G-d will gather him.

Moses is destined to leave this life and the people he led for 40 years. Hearing this, Moses makes a request of Adonai; he asks G-d to choose and appoint a successor so that the people he has cared for will not be left leaderless. At this moment, Moses refers to Adonai (27:16)as “Elohei ha’ruchot – G-d of the breaths or spirits of all flesh, not G-d of the (singular) breath or spirit of all flesh.

We are taught that every word and every letter of Torah has significance; this turn of phrase begs us to ask “what is the significance of a little ‘s?’” Bear with me for a moment – in fact, pause and take a breath; breathe in.. breathe out.. … now do that again.

Consider that the air you took in with the second breath was different than the air you drew in the first time; the second breath was filled with what every living thing around you – human, animal and plant – had each exhaled the first time. The continual movement of the world and the wind currents also caused the air to change.

So to, it must be, with the breath of Adonai. G-d did not just breathe into Adam and then walk away from further connection with human beings. Whenever we connect with Adonai, we too, become filled with G-d’s ruach; G-d’s breath or spirit embraces us with every exhale.

Is it exactly the same breath that Adam felt? Probably not, for the world is ever-changing. Just as it is said that at Sinai, each of us heard G-d’s words in the way we could understand, Each one of us feels, understands, and interprets this ruach – this spiritual connection to Adonai and to Judaism differently. Each of us is an individual – filled with an individual neshama that is fueled by the unique ruach we gain through our connection with G-d.

This week the US Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Even as many celebrated each individual’s right to equal benefits regardless of the partner they marry, others cried out against the decision. The world has changed since the writings of Leviticus and with it so has the air, and the ruach, we breathe. We can choose whether to celebrate the uniqueness of those around us and all they add to the world, or to create tension with those who do not see things as we do. 

 May there come a time when we can each accept and celebrate our differences as well as all we have in common. We are all B’nai Eloheim – children of G-d, each filled with haRuchot Eloheim – the individual breaths that allow us to be all we can be. We each have the power to bring that time closer by working to let our own neshama glow and shine in all that we do.