Where Does Torah Come From?

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Torah is at the very center of Judaism.  When we talk about “Torah,” though, not everyone means the same thing.  A literalist approach would argue that the Torah is what was given to Moses at Mt. Sinai as described in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro; those same individuals might include the Oral Torah as also having been received at the same time.

Others think of Torah more broadly.  Torah is from the same word as Moreh/Morah–teacher.  It is roughly translated as instruction.  There are those who think of Torah as any kind of Jewish learning.

Parashat Yitro relates the “official” story of where instruction came from.  There is a sense, however, that what was revealed to Moses and our people at Mt. Sinai continues to be revealed on a regular basis.  As time goes on and we make more discoveries, we further uncover God’s instructions and God’s will.  In this respect, Torah not only comes from our past–and from a place far away, but Torah also comes from a place very close to us every day.

Our lives are enriched by Torah–by the instructions we receive from many sources; those instructions help us to find our place in the world and what God wants from us.  Do not believe that all there is to know about Torah and the world is known already.  The search for Torah is never-ending.

Vaping in the Gym

No Vaping

You read that right, “vaping in the gym.”

Yesterday evening, I went for a run on the indoor track that runs around the main gym, but up a level. When running on the track it is possible to look below and see kids playing on toys, adults playing Pickleball, and teens playing basketball. I could not believe my eyes when I saw–of all things!–three teenage boys vaping IN THE GYM on the side of the basketball court.

I work at the gym and, even though I was not in uniform, when I got around the track to where they were I stopped running and called down to them. “Excuse me, gentlemen!” They saw where the voice was coming from and I said “You can’t do that here.” One of them said, rather sheepishly, “I’m sorry.” I responded, “don’t be sorry–just don’t do it!”

The same boys were seen and reported by two members vaping again the Fitness Center. I would say that I was speechless when I heard this, but this is a blog so I’ve got to write about it.

I know this shouldn’t matter, but what really bugged me was that the boys were obviously Jewish teens. How did I know? They were dressed in clothing and “accessories” that clearly identified them as Jews–and observant ones at that. Ugh.

I know this isn’t fair. I find it horrifying when I see any young person (or any person for that matter) vaping or smoking. It is so clearly detrimental to one’s health. Do I need to quote articles and health journals? We’ve known for a while just how damaging and addictive it can be. It is also a very expensive “habit.” How people still vape and smoke is beyond me.

Why does it bother me that they were Jewish…and apparently observant? How does one follow the Jewish laws so closely–so much so that it dictates their dress, diet, social interactions, etc.–and at the same time destroy one’s own body–a potentially holy vessel given by God?

There may not be a commandment in the Torah that says Thou Shalt Not Vape, but Jewish law clearly mandates that we have an obligation to preserve our health so that we will live and be able to serve God and our fellow human beings. How can someone care so much about the food that goes into their body and ignore the noxious chemicals they inhale? It is a total disconnect.

It is important for all religious leaders to share the dangers of vaping and smoking. We also need to call out the cigarette and vape companies that market to teens and young adults. They know that if they can create an addict early, they will have a customer for life.

Vaping in the gym? Sadly, yes. We can do better. We owe it to the next generation to get the message out.

From a Tree-Hugger

Tree Row

An Improvised Ode to Trees

O Trees, how do I love thee?

I love thy fruits:  apples, pears, coconuts, and oranges.

I love thy leaves:  they provideth us with shade on hot summer days, their rustling sings to us on breezy days, and their color guard in fall is without parallel.

I love thy barks:  Root Beer…enough said.

I love thy roots:  they holdest together the soil and preventeth erosion.

I love thy branches:  they providest homes for the birds and iguanas, children climb them and create memories.

I love your boughs:  they are the stuff from which we build our homes, schools and shules.

I love thy pulp:  there is nothing like holding a paper book in one’s hand, and without thee there would be no toilet paper (only leaves–from you as well!).

I love your photosynthesis:  I do not know how thou dost it, but thank thee for thy oxygen-producing nature.

O Trees, how do I love thee?  Thy manifold beauty and purpose is beyond sufficient praise.  I will show thee my love by vowing to forever safeguard you.

This coming Sunday evening and Monday, we celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees.  It is a kind of “fiscal year” described in the Mishnah to help us observe the mitzvah of not eating tree produce during the first three years they bear fruit.  More recently, it has become a day to honor trees, plant trees, and work to preserve our environment.
We have messed up our planet.  I am not sure what can save us…but I think trees may have the answer…and they might be the answer.

What Moves You to Act?

empathy

Parashat Bo–the Torah Portion read yesterday morning–contains the last of the 10 Plagues that God visited upon the Egyptians.  The last, the death of the first born of both human and beast, was the most devastating of all of them; it was the plague that finally convinced Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go.

Much interpretation has been written about the final plague.  It is clear that this plague personally touched Pharaoh and his family.  All the previous plagues may have affected the rest of the Egyptians, but Pharaoh’s powerful position may have prevented him from their full force.  With the death of the first born, not a house in Egypt did not experience the loss–including Pharaoh’s palace.

There is a recognizable truth in this.  We know that often we are not moved until something touches us directly.  We may hear about injustice or war or suffering, but we don’t do anything about it if we are not affected by it.  If it comes knocking at our door, however, we are the first to step up, complain, and act.Judaism teaches us that we cannot take this approach.  We must remember our experience as outsiders to feel what others feel and act accordingly.  This is called “having empathy.”  It is something that Pharaoh seemed to lack.  It is something that is often missing in our society as well.  It is found at every level; unless we are somehow inconvenienced or aggrieved we are silent.

The price for not acting is a high one.  When we do not stand up for others, when we do not feel what they feel…we cannot expect them to do the same for us.  Setting that aside, wee stand up for others because it is the right thing to do? It is our sacred duty to be empathic.  We know it means to suffer, and we should work to prevent others from having to experience it as well.

The Struggle is Real…difficult

Image result for ten plagues of egypt

Parashat Va-era contains the beginning of the process of our ancestor’s liberation from Egyptian slavery.  The end of the portion is comprised of the first plagues God visited on our oppressors.

Va-era and the following two portions are filled with miracles that accompany the Exodus from Egypt.  Modern readers often wonder if the events described really happened.  Did the Nile turn to blood?  Were there frogs everywhere, etc.?  And was it possible that these natural disasters only struck the Egyptians and not the Israelites?  Scholarly papers have been written that seek to explain the plagues from an epidemiological standpoint.  A few of them are rather convincing; there are plausible explanations for how it started and how one plague naturally followed after the other.

But do we really need to understand exactly how the plagues occurred?  Do we even need to believe that the stories contained in these Torah portions (or any others for that matter) really happened?

The miraculous nature of the story does not require historical or scientific verification.  Ultimately, what is most important is the underlying message:  the difficult path from oppression to liberation.  This story is not just about the Exodus from Egypt.  It is about the constant quest for justice and freedom in our world.  Bringing redemption to our world is never easy; it doesn’t occur overnight.  And there are times when we reach a milestone–where some wrong is righted or some injustice recognized–and feel that the moment is beyond just us.  There is something “miraculous” about it…or a sense that a higher source somehow intervened.There are those who take the story literally, but for those who don’t, there is still the valuable lesson about the work it will take to redeem our far from perfect world.

Shabbat Shalom!

The Difficult Climb Out

Image result for majdanek

Many years ago I had the opportunity to visit the Majdanek Concentration/Death Camp in Poland.  There is a huge sculpture that looks somewhat like a menorah that dominates the landscape.  As visitors get closer, they see that there is a long sloping path that goes under the menorah; the way out is a steep set of rock stairs.  The symbolism was to show how easy it was to slide into the situation that led to the Holocaust, and how difficult it was for those caught up in it to get out.

This week’s Torah portion reflects a similar idea.  The process by which the Children of Israel came into slavery in Egypt looks somewhat quick and easy; it occurs over the course of just a few verses.  The way out, however, took 400 years and a series of miraculous events.  Even then, by the end of the Torah, the Israelites still had not reached the Promised Land.  The contrast is striking.

Often in life we make decisions or take actions that are not well-thought out; we take the easy route instead of the right one.  Sometimes the repercussions are not really consequential.  Other times, though, we find ourselves entangled in webs from which we are not able to extract ourselves so easily.  Parashat Shemot–and the many parashiyot that follow it–remind us that what may seem inconsequential now may end up being quite significant further down the road.  It is up to us to see beyond the moment and think about the future.

Turning Dreams into Reality

Dream Catcher

Torah portion, Miketz, it is Pharaoh himself who dreams; Joseph’s interpretation of those dreams and his knowing what to do with those interpretations catapult him to the second highest office in all of Egypt.
Herein lies an important distinction.  It is one thing to dream (or to be a dreamer).  It is another thing to be able to interpret or understand what the dream means (like, I shouldn’t have had a burrito before I went to bed!).  It is quite another thing to take that interpretation and convert it into a plan of action–which is exactly what Joseph did.  Dreams without a strategy remain just that:  dreams.


This is a timely message for us as we approach the new secular year.  Many of us make New Year’s Resolutions which are, in a way, dreams that we have for the new year.  Making a resolution, however, without a concrete way to make it all happen is an exercise in futility and/or folly.  If we think about the resolutions that we have made in the past, how many of them went unfulfilled simply because we did not really think through how to make them a reality?  This is true whether the resolution has to do with study, work, relationships or physical fitness.  No plan equals no success.


This is a concept that Joseph understood well.  He was a dreamer and he understood others’ dreams too.  What set him apart was what he did next.  As we begin 2020, we should ask ourselves as well…what must we do next to make our dreams a reality?