You Shall Pursue

October 8, 2013

D’var Torah: Parshat Noach

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 10:02 pm

Delivered at my student pulpit on Saturday, October 5

I have always felt a bit sorry for Noah. He is a good man, a righteous man, but a man like any other. He has worked hard all his life, raised up his children, and now he is in the twilight years, the years when most people sit back, relax, and enjoy a contented old age with a loving spouse and adorable grandchildren.

And then God comes to him and the experience changes everything. God gives Noah the challenge of a lifetime; he must save humanity. How does an old man respond to such a burden? This particular old man builds a raft, fills it with animals and children and in-laws, and sets out to honor God’s commands and save a remnant of humanity.

The God of the Bible favors those whom God loves by pulling them out of the usual path of their lives and plunking them down into extraordinary circumstances. From Noah, tasked with repopulating the Earth; to Abraham, who is commanded to leave his ancestral homeland for places unknown, cast out one son (Ishmael) and sacrifice the other (Isaac); to Moses, commanded to lead an extremely stubborn people through the desert for forty years, relationship, or covenant, with our God often reads more like an extreme test of faith than like a reward.

Why does God in the Bible show love by placing what appear to be impossible expectations on human beings? Perhaps it is to show all of us that a truly blessed life is difficult and meaningful rather than easily pleasurable. All of us experience our lives as a series of obligations that we must fulfill. The challenge is whether we view these obligations as a challenge to be overcome so that we can kick back and relax, or as an opportunity to better our own lives and the lives of those whom we love.

I’m sure that everyone in this room well understands what it means to be burdened. In our work lives, in our family lives, there is never enough time or energy, and the demands on us are unending.

I am reminded of the movie Date Night, in which Tina Fey portrays a harried and sleep-deprived working mother. In one scene, her children, whom she clearly loves deeply, burst into her room at six on a weekend, depriving her of her one day to sleep in. “Oh” she mumbles as she gets up to play with them, “You have so many NEEDS.” I don’t think I have ever heard caring for children as succinctly described as in that one sentence.

And yet, how many of us would abandon those burdens? How many would abandon our obligations to spouses, parents, children, dear friends? It is these very demands on our time and our energy (and often those whom we love demand much) that make our lives worth living.

We are all indebted to one another, and it is through filling those debts that we build a life of meaning, purpose, and joy.

One of my many rabbis, Rabbi Ira Stone, writes in his book A Responsible Life:

 Love, once evoked, creates in us the desire to care- and this desire cannot in good conscience be abandoned. The feeling of love thus becomes transformed into a responsibility, a command to which we must respond… This love which we have for another has singled us out; we are aware that no one else can stand in for us, no one else can take responsibility off of us… Revelation is the acknowledgment of this election.

When Noah responded to God call’s, the weight of humanity’s future rested on his shoulders. What could he do but take on that burden?

Of course, for most of us, our decisions to honor our obligations, or not, are not quite so weighty. But as many of us know who have seen the all consuming joy of a child when we take them on a vacation or even take them on a surprise outing, honoring our burdens with joy and love can deeply effect the world.

This love that we feel for others is not some vague, happy, hippy feel-good-ness. It comes out of an urgent need to DO something, to heed the call and do what we must to make things better for those who need us right now.

And so I ask, what are we doing to live up to our obligations? How are we living out our covenants with the people around us? How are we making their lives better? And are we attending to these tasks with a sense of joyless duty, or a sense of true pleasure?

God gives us covenant so that we may be connected, happy, and at peace. May we, like Noah, know the gratitude and sense of divine awe that comes of a Divine contract fulfilled, with God and with those whom we love.

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April 15, 2013

Doer of Good and Creator of Evil

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — marleyweiner @ 11:24 pm

For the second time since I have started rabbinical school, the news is buzzing with some horrifying evil. Last time I found myself scared and sad. This time, I’m feeling pissed.

How dare the evil people of this world keep blowing away innocents? How dare they? I was speaking to a good friend today, and she is a runner, and now she is freaking out at the idea of doing this thing that she loves, because someone had to go and blow it up. And several months ago, I had to go through aching sadness every time I looked at my pupils because someone decided it would be a good idea to go and murder some kids. 

We were given this incredible capacity, as social animals. We are bonded to each other, we seek each other out for comfort and love. And we have great capacity for love. This beautiful piece by s.e. smith shows the power of our capacity for love and supporting one another in times of crisis. And that is a truly miraculous thing.

But our power to love each other gives us also the power to wound tremendously, the power to produce twisted, stunted, evil people who think that it is acceptable to hurt other people to deal with their own darkness, their own anger, their own vicious sick brokenness. I don’t claim to know what would drive someone to cause this sort of destruction. But this is a real a piece of the human condition as our capacity for love. And that is fucking enraging.

Why, oh Creator of the Universe, did you create us so imperfect? What was your plan, in making us so ready and willing to hurt each other?

February 7, 2013

D’var Torah: Parshat Beshalach

Filed under: D'var Torah, Rabbinical School — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 8:25 pm

I delivered a version of this D’var Torah at Minyan Tikvah’s Shabbaton on January 25. I’ve been super busy, so I’m only finding time to post it now!

Today I want to talk to you about weird food. In this week’s parsha, the Children of Israel complain to Moses that they miss the flesh pots of Egypt and accuse him of bringing them to starve in the wilderness. God hears this, and tells Moses that he will rain down bread from heaven in order to test the Israelites. And then, the next day, something falls from the sky. It is white, flaky, like frost, sweet as cake, and has magical properties. The people, understandably confused, ask “Man hu?” “What is it?” and in this question, manna is named.

God lays out very specific rules for the manna. The people are to gather one omer per day, they are to eat every last bit during that day, and they are not to try to gather on the Sabbath. The Children of Israel, being the Children of Israel, go against every last one of these rules. And yet, the manna resists their attempts to mismanage it. When they gather more or less than an omer, “those who gathered a lot had no excess, and those who gathered a little bit had no lack.” When they try to hoard the food, it sprouts maggots and stinks so that even the strongest-stomached among them could not eat it. When they attempt to go out and gather on the seventh day, there is no manna to be found. And interestingly, though God says that he is sending the manna as a test, he does not punish the children of Israel for their behavior. So why, then, does God send manna?

This is a people who have been slaves for 400 years. They are not used to living on their own, managing their own lives, worshipping their own God. And God seems to know this. Rather than punishing the Children of Israel for disobeying, he creates a food that will force them to respect it, so that they can learn, slowly over time, what it means to follow God’s commandments. Before the people ever get to Mount Sinai to receive God’s full set of commandments, they have been practicing at the covenental relationship with the manna. God does not set the people up to fail. Rather, God gives them training wheels until they are ready to steer all by themselves.

For those you who don’t know me, I am in my first year of rabbinical school. And it is hard. Mostly because I wish I knew everything right now, and I feel woefully unprepared for this massive undertaking I seem to have gotten myself into. And how many of us have ever felt like that? Like we were playacting at our jobs, at our lives, at being a grownup? That at some point they are all going to realize that we don’t know what they think we know? It’s called “impostor syndrome” and it is real and it is scary.

But if the manna teaches us anything, it is that we are supposed to go by baby steps. God did not ask the people to join in covenant right away, and we should not expect ourselves to be perfectly pulled together at all times. There is room in the relationship between God and the Children of Israel for screwing up, and there is room for all of us to screw up. God will keep sending manna, and we will grow into the roles that we have chosen for ourselves, and we will flourish.

January 7, 2013

Reconstructionism Part 2: All About God

Filed under: Rabbinical School, Spirituality — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 8:40 pm

There are many who accuse Mordechai Kaplan of atheism. This could not be further from the truth. Kaplan believed deeply in a Divine Power; it’s just that what he believed the Divine Power IS is radically different from what many other monotheists have to say about God. His vision of God, which he referred to as “the power that makes for salvation,” is one in which God is inextricably tied to the natural world, and does not operate on a transcendent level beyond the reality that we as human beings can see, and touch, and feel.  As a result of this, Kaplan’s theology (often referred to as”process theology”) and worship focuses more on the processes that make holiness evident in the world, rather than God as a being.

Kaplan gives the example of רופה חולים (healing the sick). Needless to say, when we pray for God to heal the sick, the patient does not always get better. Kaplan turns this prayer on its head; instead of praying for some mystical intervention, when we pray for healing, we are giving thanks for medical improvements that allow us to greatly extend our quality and length of life. We are giving thanks for dedicated doctors and nurses that work tirelessly to treat their patients. And we are giving thanks for communities to support us when we and our loved ones are ill. Recovery is not always possible, but reaching out to tap into the healing parts of the universe is. As Kaplan put it “The prayer form celebrates the reverent acknowledgment of those values and qualities which through human effort unite to satisfy the needs of man.” Kaplan’s God is a God of miracles, in that the natural world is a miracle; no more and no less.

I am a huge fan of process theology. As a Reconstructionist, I’m not terribly interested in a God who is a grumpy old bearded man in the sky who is watching for me to screw up so that he can pounce and SMITE. There is little that appeals to me in the idea that God is a bigger, more powerful version of human. And yet, I am also not terribly interested God as Prime Mover, a force that sets the universe in motion and then steps away without any ability to react to or care about the process that it has begun. The God that I yearn for is a God that is involved, immanent, and present with me in an intimate but ultimately totally non-human way. How does that work exactly?

While Kaplan used the phrase “power that makes for salvation,” I have for years been calling God “the Soul of the Universe,” or in Hebrew “רוח העולם” (Ruach Haolam).  Incidentally, this is a common epithet for God in Reconstructionist liturgy that I didn’t discover until years after I started using the term. In Hebrew, the word רוח (ruach), or soul, carries a slightly different meaning than the English soul. Ruach is the animating force, the breath, the indicator that a person is living. In Genesis, it is a ruach that God sends out over the waters in order to begin the process of creation. It is the force behind the first words. When I call God the Soul of the Universe, I am saying that God animates all that is living, that God is in every blade of grass causing it to grow, and in every spinning galaxy.

I also find the language of Soul helpful because it addresses the question of why the universe is ultimately imperfect and broken. There is no human being created into a perfect body. We have poor vision, high blood pressure, chronic pain. And yet, who would not describe the human body as a marvel of God’s work? And the soul, the triumphs of body and spirit, are not lessened by the fact that we are, each of us, born in an imperfect body that has so much potential to break. So too is it with all of creation. At its core, I believe that our universe is imperfectly created, and that God is a marvelous thing for providing for so much good in that imperfect system.

This view of God allows me to take a fairly relaxed attitude toward the Divine. I am a strong believer in finding the Divine through science (see my post about God and Quantum Physics or this video with the brilliant words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson). I am also a firm believer in religious pluralism. If God is not a being with one agenda true across the eternity of time and space, but is rather as fluid and changing as creation itself, then certainly different people can come to God in different times and different ways. If that is through Christianity, or biology, or chanting, it is really all good. It is about opening oneself to the miracle that we all exist, and allowing ourselves to be swept away.

December 31, 2012

Feminism and Faith

Filed under: Social Justice, Spirituality — Tags: , — marleyweiner @ 9:15 pm

Feminism and Faith

This is a fascinating article by the fabulous Sady Doyle about how women can use their religious beliefs as a tool for promoting a more just and egalitarian world. It can be a challenge, balancing a commitment to egalitarianism with the patriarchal origins of Judaism, but there is so much good to be had by reclaiming the text and making it ours.

June 20, 2012

God in the Details: In Which I Encounter Quantum Physics

Filed under: Choosing Life, Spirituality — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 2:57 am

Two weeks ago, the incomparable Mr. M and I went to a lecture/ theatrical presentation about the development of quantum physics. As a humanities nerd, the idea of quantum physics (namely, that at the subatomic level, things exist as both particles and waves, and that everything at the subatomic level basically exists on a spectrum of probability rather than having definite, permanent qualities) hurts my brain. But while I do not understand the math involved, the general principle that, at the micro-micro-cosmic level, the universe is waaaaay weirder than anyone could have imagined is endlessly appealing to me.

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May 24, 2012

Works, Faith, and Why I Don’t Eat Shrimp Any More

Filed under: Spirituality — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 2:48 am

Last weekend, I was at a party, talking to a Catholic guy. My future vocation came up in the conversation, and he was fascinated, as non-Jews often are. He had LOTS of questions for me. One of which was the difference why Jews placed so much of an emphasis on laws while Christianity focuses more on “faith.” I take questions like these VERY seriously, because usually, answering them will lead me to discover more about the reasons why I am practicing Judaism in the way that I have chosen to practice (also, because I will talk about Judaism ALL DAY if given the option).

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