Thursday, April 16, 2009

Matzah Ball

--By the Tar Heeb

I am not a baseball fan.

I would go even further and say that I am a baseball hater. Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, I had two sports passions: the Charlotte Hornets and the Carolina Panthers. Both basketball and football are more exciting than baseball (possibly objectively and definitely subjectively), thus cementing my allegiance to the sports. I also played both, in JCC leagues for basketball and middle school for football.

Little League, the so-called quintessential American experience, eluded me as it does for many Jewish boys due to the overwhelming priority that my parents put in Hebrew School. The lack of baseball viewing and playing opportunities while growing up a Jewish kid in Charlotte resulted in my apathy and subsequent hatred of the game, which is pretty easy to do considering the snail's pace at which it is played. So it was much to my surprise when the worlds of Judaism and baseball collided for me on Monday night and of holiday: Passover.

My office had decided a few weeks ago to buy tickets to the Washington Nationals' home opener and when our secretary asked if I wanted to go, the only allowable response was “yes,” since it was an afternoon game. I didn’t give the game a second thought until I was packing to go home for Seder and realized the game would smack dab in the middle of Passover. I couldn’t think of a worse combination.

I had come to terms with the fact that I had to spend three hours watching baseball and conjuring up topics for conversation with my co-workers, but now without partking in two of my top three pastimes: 1) drinking beer, 2) eating food and 3) belligerently quoting baseball movies (for someone who hates baseball, I sure do love baseball movies). No. 3 on my list was still a possibility, but without the guise of being at least mildly drunk, I’d just look like a crazy person.

In the end, I just sucked it up. I chatted with my co-workers, pretending not to be ridiculously jealous of the tons of beer and food they were expensing to the company. I made SEVERAL laps around the entire stadium and even contemplated building a bear (yes, they have Build-A-Bear station at the Nationals Ballpark). And ultimately I realized that the kind of suffering I had to endure by going to a baseball game on Passover is exactly in the spirit of the holiday.

I just had to remember that no matter how rooted my hatred of baseball is, it is nothing like the Exodus from Egypt.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

From Slaves to Seder to Stories

--By Hannah

I really love Passover. The Seder has always been one of my favorite family gathering times -- I think I like it so much because it’s kind of stuck in time. If you think about it, a seder is like a living fossil, a bunch of traditions, practices, and readings that preserve this central kernel of memory. We add to the memory over time with new traditions (hey, my family puts an orange on our seder plate) and new memories from our own historical contexts. The point of the whole thing is that we’re supposed to pretend -- no, we’re supposed to actually remember, like it happened to us -- that we were slaves in Egypt.

The Haggadah is pretty damn assertive about this. We read, “this year we are slaves. Next year may we be free.” Even though I’ve been to 46 seders over the course of my lifetime, and have led seders for exactly six years running, I still have kind of a hard time wrapping my head around the whole thing. How, exactly, am I supposed to remember leaving Egypt -- an event which happened approximately 3,287 years before I was born? What, really, does that mean?

I hope you don’t mind, but I’m not going to talk about Torah even a little bit today. Don’t get me wrong, I know that the texts that comprise the seder are deeply rooted in rabbinic literature and Torah. What I will do, however, is tell you a story that I learned at a seder, a story about remembering:

When the founder of modern Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, saw danger threatening the Jews, he used to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. He would light a special fire, say a certain prayer, and the danger would be averted. Later, when his disciple was worried about the fate of the Jews, he would go into the exact same place in the forest and say, “God! Listen! I don’t know how to light the fire of the Baal Shem Tov, but I know the right place and I know how to say the right prayer.”

When the disciple of the disciple desperately needed to save the Jewish people, he would go into the forest and say, “I can’t light the fire. I don’t even know the prayer. I do know the place, though.”

Eventually, it came time for the disciple of the disciple of the disciple of the Baal Shem Tov to intercede to help the Jewish people in times of trouble. Sitting in his house, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I can’t light the fire. I don’t know the prayer. I can’t even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this has to be enough.” And it was sufficient.

This is pretty much exactly how I feel about Passover. So much time and history has passed since the Israelites made their exodus from Egypt. Heck, I’ve never even been to Egypt. So much about the lives of the Israelites is just completely unimaginable to me. I don’t know what it’s like to be a slave, I don’t know what it’s like to pray to God for alleviation from an oppressor, and I certainly don’t know what it’s like to make a paschal sacrifice.

But I do know the story. I know the story of the Exodus; I know the story of the Haggadah; I know the story told by my family during the seder, going back hundreds of years. So, even though I don’t know the fire, the prayer, or the place, I can still remember the story and relive the history of my family, my community, and my people. And this, I think, is more than sufficient.

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Friday, April 03, 2009

Dressing in Shades of Grey (Tzav)

--By Chanel

For a while, I didn’t wear pants. I don’t mean in the manner of Lindsay Lohan (leggings do not count as pants), but that I only wore skirts, in an attempt to take on greater religious observance. This lasted for about two years, before -- after careful examination -- I decided I was really better off in jeans. It’s taken me about that long to achieve an equilibrium of pants and skirts again.

Parsha Tzav is laden with this business about what it is to act on behalf of a community (as Aaron does), and how private observance affects everyone (the Israelites’ offerings). As a Jewish professional, I believe it’s not only important, but also vital to bring my authentic self to my work. I want my students to see the complexities of what being Jewish can mean, so I’m pretty loud about my multiple identities: feminist, Zionist, child raised by a single mother, etc. In the last few years working for Hillel, I’ve come to think of my Jewish identity as being public property. People are curious about how I behave Jewishly, and why.

You’d be surprised how many folks noticed my return to pants, even in the small, lefty Jewish community in which I worked at the time. Two years is a long time to commit to something -- how could I just reneg on tzniut (modesty)? It was hard to explain that skirts were an experiment in something larger: becoming more observant, and that the experiment had failed.

It didn’t lead to anything; aside from the skirts, I wasn’t keeping more mitzvot. I was just a girl in skirts, which led people to form whole new sets of assumptions about my identity. The prospect of deconstructing them exhausted me. In retrospect, I realize I wasn’t confident enough to not care.

Throughout Tzav is the work of sacrifice: how it must be done, how it can be eaten, how it becomes holy. Admittedly, it’s hard for me to connect spiritually to this. It’s Hebrew that’s difficult, with exhaustive descriptions and a certain level of monotony. What I can reach for, and relate to, is what it is to make sacrifices in my own life, and to recognize the sacrifices of others, large or small. To a degree, choosing to be a professional Jew means forsaking a private Jewish existence. My Jewish behavior will be under scrutiny by others, and as a result, my own.

This realization comes with a weird kind of relief: along with encouraging my students to develop Jewish confidence, I have to do the same. It’s imperative. I have to be as reflective as I ask them to be, I have to push myself as hard as I push them to look at the grey parts, the unsettling moments, both Jewishly and in the world at large.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

For Who Knows How My Love Grows? And Who Knows Where the Time Goes? (Vayikra)

--By TruBluJu

When I was first asked to post a little wisdom for The Watering Hole this week, I responded without hesitation. “Of course,” I said. I was around when this little idea was first hatched on the third floor of our fraternity house, but I had yet to take advantage and post my thoughts. This was finally my chance. Then, much like what happens to all of us, my week began and time quickly slipped away. Unfortunately, this seems to happen to me a lot lately.

What does this have to do with the week’s parsha? To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure. All I know is that after reading for the first few lines of Vayikra, I was sparked with an idea and now you’re going to have to bear with me as I hash this out:

According to my Google search, Vayikra outlines the rules for ritual sacrifice. Apparently, Hashem spoke only to Moses and bestowed upon him the ritual sacrifice rule book. This is one of those portions that always escape me. Why do we bother to study the right and wrong way to sacrifice an animal to G-d? I’m pretty sure this is a dated practice. The only animal sacrifices we care about are the ones that will bring a delicious steak to our plate with a side of sautéed mushroom, garlic mashed potatoes, and a frosty beer.

As I started reading through the first couple lines of the parsha, dreaming about steak, I began to think of the word "sacrifice" in a different context. Just because none of us partake in ritual animal offerings anymore does not mean we are foreign to the idea of sacrifice. As young professionals with dozens of priorities, wants, and needs, we come face to face with the notion of sacrifice each and every day. The concept of sacrifice is giving something up for your well-being or the benefit of others. For some of us, it might be as simple as buying the Harris Teeter brand yogurt instead of Yoplait in order to stay within our monthly budget. For others, it might be a bit more difficult. But at the end of the day, there is one sacrifice I think we all make: time.

Remember when we were in college and would always complain about how little time we had in the day? “If only I had a few more hours in the day, I wouldn’t feel so rushed,” we said. Oh, how little we knew back then. I am not sure about you, but I would much rather have my college schedule than my current schedule. If I had only spent a less time playing basketball, watching my housemates play video games, going out on weeknights and stalking Carolina Basketball players around campus, then there would have been more than enough hours to complete my studies, extracurriculars, and the endless pursuit of, umm ... the perfect pair of pants. Since graduating college almost four years ago, I find things are no longer that simple.

Today there are not enough hours in the day for me, a busy young professional. Between work, friends, significant others, family, errands, the gym, volunteering, synagogue, etc., I feel constant pressure to sacrifice one or more in lieu of something else. It puts a lot of stress on me. I want to make everyone happy and be everywhere at once, but we all know that is impossible. Lately, I’ve felt like if I choose one thing over another, I will be letting a group of friends or colleagues down.
  • Do I go out with the guys for the first time in a month or spend my only free weekend night making dinner for my girlfriend?
  • Do I volunteer at a Habitat for Humanity site on Saturday afternoons or join a flag football team with my friends?
  • Do I go to the gym in the morning or head into work a little bit earlier to finish up a grant proposal?
If those are the most difficult choices I have to make in a day, then life could definitely be worse. But still, decisions like these are things that constantly weigh on us. We are left wondering, "How do we accomplish everything we want to and give everyone in our life equal time?"

The only answer I can give is, just like Moses, we must prioritize our sacrifices and time. Figure out the most important things to you and make those top priorities. Don’t worry about the small stuff. If you have to sacrifice the time for one of them, you can always fit it in next week. Just make sure you make enough time for your friends, loved ones, and whatever else makes you happy. Everything else will work itself out. I promise. And if I’m wrong, we’ll go to your local kosher butcher, ask the owner to sacrifice a very special cow, and I’ll treat you to a delicious steak.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Third Time's a Charm

--By Elana

So as I was reading about the purpose of this blog, one question popped out at me: "How is this 2,000-year-old document relevant to our lives today?"

I’m not going to speak directly about how this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, relates to our lives today; I’m going to let my dad do that. I’m going to be a little selfish and speak to how it is indirectly relevant to my life, and in the process, hopefully impart a little nugget of wisdom.

I have always been a planner: a regular Type-A personality. It’s not until recently that I’ve learned the valuable lesson of recognizing that happy coincidences are usually opportunities waiting to be to be seized. About 15 years ago, my father gave a d’var on this very Torah portion. In it, he states that our family had just found out that I would be giving the d’var for the same portion on my bat mitzvah. When I was asked to write on this blog for this portion, well -- third time's a charm.

Something about this portion has always made me think of my grandfathers, both of whom have passed away and I greatly admired, as my father mentioned in his d’var. The portion seems to speak to me (and follow me!), so I suspect that this isn’t my final encounter with Vayakhel. Without further ado, recounted here is my father’s take on the Torah portion:

The parshah this week, Vayakhel, appears to be a very dry, very long cataloguing of every detail of construction of the tabernacle in the desert under the guidance of Bezalel, whom God has especially endowed with the necessary wisdom and artistic skills. During a simple reading of this type of parshah, one can easily succumb to what I call the "glaze factor." But I believe a thoughtful consideration of the context can yield some interesting possibilities.

I suspect each of us finds, as the years pass and we experience repeated cycles of readings, different parshiot become prominent for us on an individual basis -- either because we come to associate them with our own specific experiences or because they strike some particular chord of revelation and recognition.

Part of Chapter 35, Verse 31 was chosen for my father's headstone just several years ago: "And He hath filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge ..." We have learned just recently this parshah will be read the week of our daughter Elana's bat mitzvah, with its rich potential for appropriate associations with keeping the Sabbath, building a proper religious environment, and participating in communal growth. And last week, Helen's father, Israel Schrager, passed away. Izzy was a skilled Old-World tinsmith whose history is one of loss and survival through the Holocaust, of building a new life and family in a new land, and rebuilding and persevering through new adversities.

I am sure you can understand why I find this parshah has such particular resonance for myself.

This parshah and the next, Pekudei, conclude the Book of Exodus. Inherent in them are two great themes of passage: a change in the character of the events described, and a change of protagonists in the progress of the Jewish people as a nation and in its relation to God.

I find fascinating the many facets of understanding to be derived from apparently simple descriptive narratives, either directly from the text or by inference when contrasted to other chapters. This and next week's parshiot are, in their basic content, a virtual mirror of two earlier parshiot (beginning at Chapter 25 as a cataloguing of construction details for the sanctuary), but there are important differences in both context and perspective.

In the earlier narrative, God commands Moses in detail how to build the Sanctuary, then describing in detail how Aaron and his sons, who are individually named, will be prepared, supported and catered to, and also how they are to minister as high priests.

But after this giving of instruction, the people rebelled. The incident with the golden calf and Aaron's failure to stop it followed, and Moses interceded to save the people from God's anger.

Then, in this week's parshah, the people show by their heartfelt generosity and participation that they truly deserve the renewed covenant.

From the beginning, the Book of Exodus has described one conflict, one supplication for help, one challenge after another to God. Moses' dialogues with God, the hostility of the Israelite leaders after Moses' return to Egypt, the continuous doubts of deliverance, and resistance to Moses's leadership at the Red Sea and in the desert are examples.

But now, the Jewish people, as a community, have themselves created a positive tribute to the God of their deliverance, the God that made them a nation dedicated to Him at Sinai.

The Torah is very candid about the human foibles and frailties of even the most important personalities: From Adam and Eve, to each of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, to the shortcomings of Moses, and to Aaron's failing -- leaders' transgressions have been chronicled along with their triumphs. This is to remind us not only of their humanity, but that none are to be idolized when there is only one God to be worshipped.

Yet here at the close of the Book of Exodus, Moses and Aaron are only occassionally mentioned, seemingly as reference points, as mere conduits for messages to the people. The figures of Bezalel and Oholiab are named, as previously, only in connection with building the Mishkan; but they are barely characterized as possessing the artistic skills and wisdom needed to build, and to teach the people to build, a worthy Tabernacle.

Bezalel and Oholiab, along with "every wise-hearted man, even every man whose heart stirred him ... to the work," and the over-generous donations of the people, built the sanctuary -- not just with artful skill, but with "wisdom of heart," with love, and with compassion, as a worthy testament to the covenant with God. Through the last 85 verses, the text names Bezalel only once -- the sanctuary is the creation and the construction of "every wise-hearted man."

Instead of decrying the tragic failings of glorified leaders, this parshah is a celebration of the special potential of every individual.

Finally, let us remember that the tabernacle was built as a portable house of worship, as the Jewish people continued their journey of learning and growth. Where it stood was not important. What it stood for was all important.

May our community continue to be one where each of us can express our love for God with a "wisdom of heart."

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

It's so pretty and golden! I can see my reflection in it!

By Dr. Dreidel

When I was little I loved my big wheel and I rode. I even tried in my house but my mom wouldn’t go for that. One brave morning I decided to ride to the end of the block and back. As I passed the driveway of the last house I looked up and saw my neighbor’s car backing down right at me. I froze.

Somehow, my neighbor saw me. Hit the breaks and got out to make sure I was ok.

I never have told anyone that story. It was just a small thing that happened along the way, but what if that car hit me. No more Phil. No more I90Shpeil, no more professional Jewish Leadership.

The world works in mysterious ways. Look at Queen Esther. Faced with the destruction of her people she hesitated. What could she do? If she said something the king might have her killed. But Mordechai answered her. “You’ll die? So what!?” She had to do something. So, Esther stood up to the King, making her decision not knowing if she was facing life or death, but knowing that what she was doing was right.

This week we read about Aaron the high priest. Aaron the prophet, the great communicator, who faced a similar leadership dilemma. Moses was gone and the people were starting to sweat. They thought, what if he doesn’t return? And they began to despair. They went to Aaron and demanded an idol. And Aaron relented. The story is told very plainly, the people went to Aaron, Aaron asked for golden jewelry to build the idol and an idol was built.

If you read deeper into the chain of events you find that Aaron too was desperate – one commentary reads that Aaron tried to delay the people from idol worship. If he could just slow them down until Moses returned then he could save the day. So he asked for Jewelry, thinking the women and men wouldn’t give it up. But they did. Then he said that he alone would have to make the Calf so that he could take his time, but before he knew it there stood the calf and the people began to worship it.

What could Aaron have done? Instead of slowing the process why did not Aaron stand up, channel Nancy Reagan and just say no? Was he scared to act?

I saw the Watchmen last week. It is a movie about the humans behind the masks. Essentially asking, “what kind of twisted person would really dress up and run around fighting crime?” For these characters, they felt most like themselves when they had their mask on.

We all have masks. We need them, and we feel more comfortable using them. But why? What is it about being human that we lie, we doubt and we assume alter egos?

If you flip through Jewish texts, you’ll notice God too has a Mask and that God’s presence becomes hidden the further you move beyond the books of the Torah. The story of Purim in fact does not mention God at all. Where was God when the Jewish people were about to be exterminated? A question that was echoed years later when we asked where was God during the Holocaust?

If God has a right to ask our ancestors, Adam, Abraham and Moses, where are you? Then we should ask where is God? And why is God’s presence masked from us?

The thing is, though, The Hebrews in the desert knew exactly where God was. They were the unmasked generation. So how could it be that the Hebrews in the Desert built the Golden Calf?

Look, I struggle with God’s existence all the time. But if God revealed himself to me, I think I would get the picture.

What I really like about this story is that it shows that it’s ok to doubt. If the generation that knew God’s voice could push Aaron to veer off the path, then so might we be pushed off the path.

If they could mess up then we can mess up.

Several things happened after the Golden Calf. Moshe shattered the tablets, God forgave the people after Moses repented, and then Moses asked God to unmask himself so that he could see God’s face.

Did Moses have doubts that God existed? Why did he want to see his face? I think it was to understand, not for himself but for the people. Essentially Moses was asking what we all ask everyday. What is the master plan? Why do bad things happen to good people?

We all want to know the master plan. When I was young and riding on my big wheel, is it possible that it was God that stopped that car from hitting me? I don’t know. But, as the Golden Calf shows us, not knowing is what it means to be human.

The Golden Calf altered our history. The second tablets were carved by the hand of Moses not by God. We still got the teachings, but this time we had to work for them.

We have a choice every day to either work hard and put in the effort to receive the teachings of our parents, teachers, and self help books. Or we can choose to just buy the leadership book but not read it.

Its natural for us to want to know, but not put in the effort. We just want to give our money to someone that we know will manage it for us. We don’t want to do the research. Why examine the investment strategy? If it’s good enough for Elie Weisel and Kevin Bacon, then it’s good enough for me.

That is the Golden Calf, the life of ease. We don’t have to think, we don’t have to tear away our attention from our iphones and gchats to concentrate.

But that is not the life of a Jew. We are here to do the work. We are here to ask questions and argue. We are here to lead and make the world a better place.

To be desperate is not a Jewish value. Desperation is not Jewish, because if you’re Jewish there is always hope. No matter how dark the times may be, we can hope and believe in our people and our covenant with the world. I can’t tell you whether or not to believe in God. But I can tell you that you should believe in doubt. Because that is the struggle. That is what makes us human.

Our fight to overcome our doubts and stand up for what is right is what will ensure that the Jewish people and each of our future endeavors will make a difference in the world. That struggle within each of us is what will ensure that the light that shines in our communities will not be the light reflecting off of our gold, but will be the light that shines out from the inside, the light of the righteous.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Mountain, what Mountain?

By Sweet T

This is one of the more interesting portions for me. It captures beautifully one of my favorite sayings: sometimes you have to trim a bush to make it grow. And it’s also where the law forbidding mixing milk and meat together comes from, thus banning the delicious cheeseburger, turkey and swiss (please milk a turkey, I beg you), and other delectable combinations.

The most striking part of this portion is the killing of three thousand men for religious sin, in this case worshipping a golden calf. Moses comes down from Sinai only to find the Hebrews worshipping an idol (of him, ironically), becomes so maddened he orders the Levi Clan to attack the idolaters.

Now three thousand men was quite a lot for a group that had just escaped Egypt and was heading to an unknown land to physically conquer it from the people that dwelled there. Everyone man counts (sorry ladies, while women had much to lose if their men lost in battle, I don’t think they were involved in the fighting), and they could ill afford to lose a good chunk of their force. I’m sure this was going through Moses head; it had to be. It’s was only a few hours before when we was pleading with God not to kill them all when he was up on Sinai. So he obviously felt a value for his peoples’ lives.

Unfortunately, we can’t ever know what he was thinking, but I’m willing to guess he had a moment of realization: that moment when you realize whatever path you’re heading down is not going to get the job done. We might be paying credit card bills, and making the minimum payment each month, but when you do the math, and figure out with interest, that at that current payment, it will take you three years to erase $3,000 worth of debt.

What you do has a lot to do with the type of person you are. Whether it’s realizing that your workout regimen isn’t going to help you lose weight, or whether you figure out that the amount of money you’re spending on car repairs you could put into a newer vehicle that wouldn’t break down, we all have these moments where we understand our situation and recognize the unavoidable need for change. Some people act and make the necessary changes, and succeed (hopefully). But just as easily, some don’t make the changes. And as my ex-Marine uncle has told me, “idiocy is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.” You want to erase the Visa bill, change your budget and pay more of it off.

Moses understands this. He has a few options here. He can allow it happen, disallow it and forgive, exile the sinners or, as he does, kill them all. Each option brings with it a stronger effort to dissuade his members from doing it ever again. Think, if he had just forgiven them, would Judaism still exist, today? Would it had just been a matter of time before the Hebrews regressed again?

Whether or not you agree with the method, the result still stands. In order to accomplish great things, you must take great action. I use this story as an allegory, not a encouragement of mass extermination. And I encourage all of us to look forward to those moments in our lives, and make the changes on a consistent basis. I think when we are honest with ourselves, just as Moses was when he came down and saw it for himself, we lead a more fulfilling life.

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