Your Three Words – Parshat Bamidbar 5778

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As I was writing Pirkei Imahot with Lois Shenker two years ago, we both challenged each other to come up with three-word bios for ourselves. We’d asked our other contributors for the same thing, so we thought we’d better do it too. I really struggled with this task. How would I represent myself in three words? Am I a “mother, rabbi, friend”? Am I a “mother, daughter, wife”? Am I a “teacher, learner, preacher”? I went through what felt like an entire dictionary of adjectives to try to describe myself in only three words. I always left the exercise feeling like I’d left out an essential piece of who I am. I am a mother and a daughter, I am a wife and a sister, I am a teacher and a preacher, I am a rabbi and a friend, I am silly and serious. Each time I picked one adjective, I felt like I was somehow diminishing another element of my being.

The truth is, as we evolve in life we go through multiple titles, multiple personality changes, and multiple identifiers. The Israelites as a nation are themselves experiencing this phenomenon as they have left Egypt and become their own nation. In Parshat Bamidbar, which we read this week, we read about the appointment of the leaders of the army that will guide the people along with Moses, Aaron, and the other leaders of the tribes. We learn of the accounting of the eligible soldiers over 20 years old, the special purpose of the tribe of Levi, and the order of the encampments for the travels of the children of Israel in the wilderness.

The order of the encampments is part of the process of God trying to set up a society that identifies the individual tribes and connects them to the greater community. In chapter 2, verse 2 we read:

The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance.

In this one verse there are three different elements of identity: the self (the standard), the family (the ancestral banners), and the community (the Tent of Meeting).

All this time I had been trying to pick three individual characteristics that define me, but perhaps our identities are threefold by nature. According to this text of the Torah, our identity is who we are for ourselves; how we connect to our home base, whether it’s the family that raised us or the family we choose; and our community, the places in which we congregate, celebrate, and share publicly. The real challenge then is not coming up with the identifiers themselves, but working to make sure each of these three categories supports the person you desire to be.

 

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Correction: Parshat Behar-Bechukotai 5778

Blog subscribers,

We had a bit of technical difficulty with today’s post, and when it was published, all the text was gone. Sorry for any confusion. This week’s d’var Torah is now up and ready to read at:

https://rabbieve.com/2018/05/11/veggie-surprise/

Thanks, and Shabbat shalom!

-Rabbi Eve

 

Veggie Surprise – Parshat Behar-Bechukotai 5778

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A while ago Duncan and I tried a farm share CSA. It became a fun little guessing game. Every week we’d wonder if we’d get vegetables we were willing to try. Would we know how to cook them? Would they all get cooked eaten before they went bad? We were living in this unknown Schrödinger’s carrot type of world with zero control over what we’d actually receive in our bag and whether or not it would actually be tasty. We spent the summer simultaneously excited and terrified about our fresh produce.

The element of surprise in relation to crops plays a role in our parshah. This week we read a double Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai. These two portions of Torah make up the final chapters of the book of Leviticus. Parshat Behar focuses on letting the land rest. We learn about the return of land during the 50th year and the cycle of workers and loans. In Parshat Bechukotai we read about the blessings that God will bestow upon the Israelites in exchange for following the laws of the Torah and the rebukes and curses that will come if they don’t. Tied up in both of these narratives is the idea of security – both financial and physical.

Chapter 25, verse 6 leads us into a world of the unknown: “You may eat whatever the land during its Sabbath may produce.” The Torah teaches us that in the seventh year we let the land rest. To prepare for this you might save in whatever way you can from the sixth year so that you’ll have enough to eat in the seventh. But what will happen to the land during that year when you’re not touching it? Will it produce on its own like the wild blackberries of Portland seem to do? Or will nothing happen and you’ll be left with no fruit of the land like pretty much any garden I’ve ever planted and subsequently ignored?

This is the unknown. This seventh year is the great equalizer. Wealthy or poor, green thumb or black, no one has any idea or can predict exactly what will fill the land in the seventh year. We are to live this year expecting the unexpected and hoping that we won’t starve.

If you know me, you know I am a huge planner. I like to include all options and plan for all situations. I don’t like the unexpected because it throws me off my game. I live in a defined everyday routine, and in order to manage expectations in our family, we do a lot of planning for what might happen. Adjusting on the fly (a.k.a. “going with the flow”) is one of the most challenging parts of life for so many because as human beings, we have an innate desire to know and understand, and that means planning. The Torah this week reminds us that sometimes knowing isn’t always possible. The best we can do is manage our expectations and learn to work within the circumstances we’re given.

 

Always More Room – Parshat Emor 5778

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There is a famous classroom activity/demonstration that is used to teach decision making and prioritization of goals and resources. The teacher shows the class a glass jar full of ping-pong balls and asks the class if the jar is full. Most students answer that it is. The teacher then pours beads into the jar, which fill in the gaps around the ping-pong balls. Now is the jar full? The class acknowledges it is. The teacher adds sand, filling in all the visible empty space between the beads. Now is the jar full? Some students might still agree, and others are starting to catch on. Finally, the teacher adds water, which soaks into the sand.

Here’s the usual breakdown that comes with the visual. Ping-pong balls represent the big, important aspects of life like family and friends. The beads are the smaller necessities like education and career. The sand reminds us that we still have room for other personal endeavors and hobbies, and the water reminds us that even when we feel full, there’s room for new experiences we might not anticipate.

This exercise is made even more illuminating when you realize that if you did it in reverse, the little things would take up so much space that there would be no room for the important things like family and friends. The second message is to be aware of your priorities and how much space they take up in your life.

This is a wonderful little demonstration, and you could even argue that it has its roots in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Emor. In this section of text, we are reminded about the laws for purification of the priests, the holidays we are to celebrate throughout the year, and the ways in which we are to treat each other and animals. The majority of these rituals are meant to be done in public, with the entire community a part of them. The time and manner in which each ritual is performed is delineated by the Torah.

The laws of the holidays and sacred element of time pose an important question in chapter 23, verse 7. “On the first day you shall celebrate a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations.” Our holidays present us with a unique challenge in today’s world: How do we prioritize our time? Do we take a few hours to celebrate the holiday and then move back into our “regularly scheduled programming” or do we jump in and immerse ourselves in the sacred time prescribed to us? Or, as you might guess, perhaps there might be a happy medium.

There are a lot of holidays in Jewish tradition, which means a lot of time off from our secular world occupations (unless you’re clergy of course, when the holidays are your job). It is completely understandable that for some people, taking every holiday off just isn’t feasible. However, the Torah this week reminds us of our sacred obligation to those ping-pong ball sized values in our lives. What are the major ways in which you define yourself? How do you prioritize what’s important in your life? If you focus on your top values first, you’ll probably find there’s always room for more.

We Go Together – Parshat Acharei Mot Kedoshim 5778

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As most of you know, I like walking, and to be honest it’s usually walking alone that I enjoy best. It gives me time to silently take in the sights and sounds of nature and work through issues, thoughts, and ideas in my head. Here’s the problem with walking alone: I don’t always get the best exercise in when it’s just me. I tend to go a little slower and meander. On the other hand, when I have a partner, someone to push the pace or hold me accountable, I tend to do better. Studies show that having someone with you to cheer you on, whether in exercise (like I have found this year at Baby Bootcamp) or at work or even in your personal life, generally leads to a more fulfilling experience and a better end result.

We’re meant to work together, to find partners in all phases of our life so that we can learn from and with them. Our Torah portions this week, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, support this notion. Parshat Acharei Mot deals with what happens after Aaron’s sons have offered up “strange fire” to God and with certain forbidden relationships between human beings. The structure of this section of text pushes us to look at our relationships with both God and others and see the boundaries and intimacies of each relationship. Parshat Kedoshim deals with what is known as the “Holiness Code,” which helps us to understand how we can walk in God’s ways and create a community of relationship and understanding.

As we get into the text about the offerings of a High Priest for atonement on Yom Kippur, we begin to read that the High Priest is to make an offering for “himself and his household.” This is interpreted to mean that the High Priest must have a partner. The High Priest’s job is to come before God as a representative of the entire community he serves, as a pious individual among the flawed community, all of whom aspire towards holiness. The question then becomes, how could he bear and carry the prayers of others unless he had learned to care for and share the hopes and dreams of at least one other individual?

One of my first rabbinic opportunities was a chaplaincy program during school. There was no hospital pulpit, just one-on-one spiritual care. Having that experience of praying with individuals one-on-one has made me a better rabbi leading large groups in prayer. Learning to work in partnership with someone allows a relationship to develop in an entirely different way. It means we then have the potential to sympathize with and support more people.

I choose to take the Holiness Code literally. To me, walking in “God’s ways” is actually about walking (or sitting or talking or laughing or praying) with others, because the more we understand each other, the more we understand God.