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.

September 16, 2013

Ki Karov Elecha (Because it is Close to You: Yom Kippur D’var Torah 2013/ 5774)

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 7:02 pm

This summer, I worked at a Jewish sleep away camp in New Hampshire teaching Jewish rituals and values. And one week, I was teaching my twelve and thirteen-year-olds about, the stories that Jews tell about the Bible. As the opener to that lesson, I asked my campers how many of them found something from the Bible confusing. And, without fail, every hand in every bunk went up and the questions started pouring in. How could God allow Abraham to nearly sacrifice his son? Did the Exodus from Egypt really happen? How do we know that any of this is real, anyway?

I empathize with my campers, as I’m sure we all do. The Torah is confusing! There are stories that seem to contradict each other, and stories that simply seem to defy sense. The work is just so magical, and mystical, and tangled up, that it seems impossible to untangle at times.

So then how can Deuteronomy claim “Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

How could the dense and confounding instruction of Torah be as close as our hearts and our mouths?

In this passage, the first sentence is often translated as “Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you.” The word that we translate as “baffling,” “niflait,” comes from the Hebrew word “feleh,” which means a “wonder” or a “miracle.”

This is a word that you have all heard before, although you may not remember where. In the Shirat HaYam, the song in which the Israelites celebrate their redemption from Egypt, the song from which we get our prayer Mi Chamocha, the Israelites exclaim that God is “norah tehilot, oseh feleh,” or “awesome in splendor, doing wonders.”

So, the redemption from Egypt is a “wonder.” The splitting of the Sea is a “wonder.” The Torah is not. What on earth could THIS mean?

When God claims that the Torah is not a “wonder,” God does not mean that the text is not wondrous and holy. Rather, God means to contrast “wondrous” with “close.” Rather than being a miracle like the splitting of the Sea that only God could do, the Torah is close by to our hearts. It is a text meant to reflect the stuff of our everyday life, and inject a little bit of Divinity into our mundane existence.

One of the things that I love about the Torah is how profoundly human it is. It is a record very real, very flawed people trying mightily, and sometimes failing, to build an authentic relationship with God. Whether it is Isaac misinterpreting the moral characters of his sons, or the Children of Israel rebelling in the desert, our ancestors often struggle deeply to find their way. They show fear and pain and doubt.

And yet they continue with the struggle. They continue to reach out towards God, hoping to find a peace and security in the land and relationship that God promises to them as a birthright.

One of the key beliefs of the Reconstructionist movement, which is the movement through which I will be ordained, is that our way of life, Judaism, is an “evolving religious civilization.” This means that, for a Reconstructionist Jew, Judaism is holy precisely because it is constructed by human beings, and because it changes over time. When we examine our writings in their historical context, they spring to life and become so much more than the words on the page.

And as they fill with life, they become more fully our own. I love our sacred texts precisely because they serve as a multifaceted and changing record of where Judaism has come from; a record of my ancestors’ grappling with the Divine.

The poems and songs and legal arguments and petty family squabbles of the Torah are so powerful precisely because they are so contradictory. When I think of Torah in all of its magnificent complexity, I think of my own psyche, and the psyches of those whom I know and love.

I cannot count the number of times that I have found myself holding holding two contradictory reactions at one time, and needing a complicated response to complicated feelings. For example, I don’t always have an easy relationship with God. In trying moments, like the after effects of Sandy Hook, I mostly want to scream and swear at the heavens, to ask, “What on Earth is wrong with You, that You would let this happen?” In those moments I find solace in the Bible. Not because it suggests that there is a reason for everything, but because it shows our forefathers and foremothers swearing and screaming just as loudly as I want to, and then continuing on in relationship with God.

And if I can need the Bible to help soothe my religious and ethical crises, think of how many opinions and stories are necessary to sustain the faith of the Jewish people!

THIS is what the Torah gives us; the perfect mirror and summation of the human drama reflected back at us through the lens of the divine. From the questioning bordering on cynicism of Ecclesiastes (where we get the phrase “there is nothing new under the sun”) to the erotic joy of the Song of Songs, there is a piece of every human emotion and experience for us to find in its letters.

This is why we read the Torah over and over again every year. To paraphrase Rabbi Barbara Penzner, “by studying Torah, as well as practicing Jewish rituals and acquiring Jewish religious objects, we can find an opening into a practice that will lead to our own unique Jewish experience.” As we read the stories of our ancestors and feel their religious and ethical concerns, we are bolstered in our own struggles with faith, to take the journey forward.

This is especially important on this day, the day of Yom Kippur. On this day, we are required to come before God and to confess our sins. And that is very very hard. But when we arrive, we are not alone.

As we read earlier in Nitzavim, the contract to follow the path of Torah and the path of Judaism is not just with us. It is “both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”

When we doubt in our ability to follow this path, we can turn to Aaron, stone-faced and silent after a tragic accident during preparations for Yom Kippur claimed the lives of two of his sons. Or we can turn to the rabbis of the Talmud, haggling over what exactly the Torah meant to “afflict oneself” during this holiday. We can turn to David in his many lament psalms, reaching out to God and begging for the overthrow of his enemies. Or we can turn to the haunting and deeply familiar strains of Kol Nidre.

Each of these Jews had a very different answer of what to do when God called them to make an accounting of their sins. And yet each of them serves as an ancient model of how we can respond to that same call.

In this time of year, a time when we often feel alone with our sins, let us remember that we are not alone. We are standing with millions of supporters, whose voices have been left behind to help us continue along the path of the Jewish people. May we rely on them, and may we grow in strength from their example.

And may we remember that the help and strength that we need is not too wondrous, but rather very close to us, in our hearts and in our mouths, that we may do it.

Shabbat Shalom, and G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May you be sealed for blessing this year, and every year.


August 1, 2013

Will We Need Torah in Olam HaBa?

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 2:27 pm

Some of my most interesting moral quandaries start as arguments on the internet. About a week and a half ago, I was discussing the Torah on a feminist website that I frequent. The woman I was talking with was not of a Jewish background, and was asking sincerely whether it is possible to redeem the patriarchal source material in the Bible, and whether or not it is in everyone’s best interest to just shed “Abrahamic religion” all together. Naturally, I think that there is much in Torah that can be redeemed and much that is life affirming. Mostly, because I believe that Torah is an accurate reflection of how we as a people are able to struggle toward the Divine and the just in an imperfect, shattered world. But this leads me to a hypothetical; if the world were not imperfect and shattered, if the vision of the prophets was fulfilled and people came to treat each other with dignity and mutual regard, what place would our deeply flawed scripture have in that world?

Our Torah paints a picture of humanity that is reflective of how it is now: flawed, sometimes misogynistic, often classist, violent, and xenophobic. And yet, even within the confines of humanity’s flaws, our patriarchs, prophets, kings (notice how many are men) struggle to define and refine a vision of a society that is just and equitable. There is beauty in standing up and saying that we as people can and must do better. That our ancestors did not use their flaws as an excuse to drop out of the work, and neither should we. That is a profound and radical statement.

But the ultimate goal is a world in which so much that the Bible takes for granted is unthinkable. Already, notions of purchasing your wife, owning slaves, are shocking to modern audiences. At what point do we transition from the Bible presenting a vision of a redeemed world within a flawed context to just presenting humanity’s flaws? In other words, if our world were indeed free of racism, xenophobia, classism, sexism, homophobia, etc. what would the place of scripture be?

I can’t imagine the Bible as purely an exercise in literature, divorced of its Divine demands. At the same time, I am aware that I disavow other works in the Western cannon that I do not consider holy because the morals within them disturb me. I don’t think we are at a place where we do not need scripture as a guide book for religious Christians, Muslims, and Jews. But what if, some day, we get to a point where our relationship with God no longer matches the path set forth in scripture? What does that look like?

I’m not sure of the answers for this. And I’m not sure what it says about my relationship with scripture today, and where I hope to see it evolve. But the questions have been bothering me, and I wanted to raise them.

December 2, 2012

On Jewish Learning

Filed under: D'var Torah, Rabbinical School, Spirituality — Tags: , , , — marleyweiner @ 2:57 am

Mishnah is fun you guys. So is Bible. So is reading Kaplan and analyzing it for meaning. Before I started school, I was petrified that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the work, and while it is indeed kicking my ass, I’m pleased to realize that I actually do find most of my classes fun.

Our texts are so much more complicated, and human, than so many are willing to allow for. There is this idea that divine texts have to be perfect and sterile, in a way, but that’s now how it works. Our texts like to contradict each other, and double back on themselves, and yell at each other. Some things that I have learned this year:

  • There’s two versions of the Ten Plagues, each one espousing a radically different theology
  • Similarly, the two kingdoms (Israel and Judea) had radically different relationships between ruling power and God. In large part, the Israelite theology is the one that survived. The covenant theology with Moses is only one half of the picture.
  • The rabbis like to tell each other (in a coded, respectful way) that they are being stupid. The phrase “If so, then there is no end to the matter” has become a running joke in my hevrtua, because it basically means “stop being a punctilious asshole.”
  • Moses is REALLY grumpy. Like, he complains to God ALL THE TIME. And then God yells at him to shut up and do the staff thing, already.

What would it mean if religious people everywhere were able to open up to this ambiguity and embrace our texts in their portrayals of human begins with flaws grappling with God? I think it would leave us with a lot more room for forgiveness of one another’s flaws, to truly see each other as created in the Divine Image (the God of the Bible pulls some petty shit, y’all). As I said before to one of my classmates, “I prefer Moses grumpy.” If Moses is human and struggles with his path, certainly I should be permitted to struggle with mine, as should we all.

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