Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Table Talk -- Shemot 5768

On average, each and every day three shells, mortars or Katyusha rockets land somewhere in Israel, lobbed from Gaza by some faction affiliated with Hamas. In response, Israel has placed a virtual economic stranglehold on Gaza, causing a great deal of suffering for the average Gaza resident. Why doesn’t the controlling Hamas leadership put an end to the shooting, and alleviate the suffering of its people? Because it’s better politically for Hamas to continue to resist, no matter the consequence.

In putting the suffering of their enemies ahead of their own citizens’ well-being, the leaders of Hamas follow a long pattern of this type of behavior, beginning with Par’oh in Egypt.

As we all know, Par’oh initially attempts to force the Jewish midwives to murder Jewish infants during childbirth. When the midwives refuse, Par’oh issues an all-encompassing decree: ויצו פרעה לכל עמו לאמר כל הבן היאורה תשליכהו וכל הבת תחיון – “And Par’oh commanded his entire nation saying, every male shall be thrown in the Nile and every female may shall be left alive.” Rashi notes that Par’oh never distinguishes between Jewish and Egyptian babies. Rather, אף עליהם גזר – “he even decreed on [their own children].” Par’oh, warned by his astrologers of the impending birth of a child that would ultimately cause his downfall, doesn’t care whether he’s throwing Jewish or Egyptian babies into the river. As long as he remains in power, that’s all that matters to him. If a few – or thousands -- of his own people suffer in the process, that’s of no concern to him.

It’s amazing how often history repeats itself.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Jewish Family Education Comes to YIOP - YIOP Bulletin for January 2008

As an institution that positions itself in the center of the Orthodox community, YIOP has, thank God, attracted a wide array of members from a broad spectrum of the Orthodox community. We offer programs that cater to adults and children, attempting to address their spiritual, educational, and even social needs. But during my tenure at YIOP, our shul and community demographics have shifted. We need to adjust the programming that we offer to mirror those shifts.

Most synagogues, where many of the children attend Hebrew school at the shul, find a great divide between the kids who were required to attend supplementary school and their parents who drop them off at Hebrew school but remain uninvolved in their religious or spiritual growth. To bridge that divide, Federation coordinates and partially funds a program called J.E.F.F. – Jewish Education For Families, under the auspices of the Alliance for Jewish Education (AJE). This program places a professional Jewish family educator on the staffs of area synagogues who creates meaningful Jewish education not for children or parents, but for families as a whole.

YIOP faces different challenges than other non-Orthodox synagogues. YIOP families usually send their children to local day schools, obviating the need for a religious school. Very invested in religious life, our families usually attend davening if not weekly, then at least monthly. That being said, in light of the many pressures Orthodox families face, the need for family programming and education is pressing and very real.

  • With the growing cost of day school education, the day school education that was once taken for granted is no longer a given. A small but growing number of families are opting out of full-time Jewish day school, and our shul must make an effort to help pick up the slack in programming and activities.
  • We are thankful for the growing number of Ba’alei Teshuvah in our community. Yet many families find themselves in the unusual situation of a knowledge gap between children and their parents. Our children, with their full-time education, quickly surpass the Jewish knowledge and ability of their parents, who did not benefit from a formal Jewish education. Clearly, we must provide opportunities and programs to allow families to study Jewish content together, hopefully bridging that knowledge gap and allowing families to grow religiously together.
  • While member families do attend davening fairly regularly, the davening setting isolates different family members rather than bringing them together. The Mechitzah obviously separates between men and women. Children participate in Shabbos groups, and small children attend babysitting. While each component serves an important function in our shul, they often separate families instead of uniting them. For this reason, we see a need to create other opportunities to bring families together in a religious context, through creative programming, additional services and other venues.
  • Finally, with our fast-paced, busy lives, parents spend less time than ever with their children. We are no exception to this rule. Our can – and must be – a venue to help bring families together and give them opportunities for interaction and relationship building in a positive religious atmosphere.

To address all of these needs, I approached the AJE to inquire about the possibility of hiring a Jewish Family Educator at YIOP. Working closely with Lisa Sobel Siegmann, the coordinator of the JEFF program at the AJE, we began the lengthy process of applying to the program, received approval, sought possible coordinators, and are finally ready to begin the program. We would never have reached this stage without the help, advice and support of many individual members including Stine Grand, Dr. Michelle Sider, Dr. Jonathan Frogel and Amy Schlussel, and the generous support of two anonymous donors.

This month we have hired Mrs. Aliza Sosne –a longtime YIOP member – to serve as our Jewish Family Eduator. Aliza, who begins January 2nd, brings a sense of passion and energy to her new position, and I am very excited about the great programming that she will bring to our community.

Hiring a family educator is really uncharted ground for YIOP, but I believe is a crucial step both to enhance the lives of our members and also to ensure our shul’s future. Still, for the JEFF program to truly succeed, it will need your participation. So, take the time and energy to get involved. Help Aliza plan and program. Come with your family – and learn and enjoy. And know that by taking an active role in our new Family Education program, you’ll not only be helping our shul, but you’ll be educating your family, and hopefully growing closer to God and to each-other at the same time.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Table Talk - Vayechi 5768

American pop culture has long associate the symbol of the fish with Chrisitianity. (Think of the term "holy mackerel". Really.) Yet, once again an important symbol has been "borrowed" from the Jewish people, as the fish has been a symbol of Jewish fruitfulness since the time of Ya'akov. The Torah tells us that when Ya'akov blesses Yosef's sons, Ephraim and Menashe, he gives them the famous blessing that we sing with our children each night:
הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל-רָע, יְבָרֵךְ
אֶת-הַנְּעָרִים, וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי, וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק;
וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב, בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ.

the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my
name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let
them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.'

While we translate the word וידגו to mean "and let them grow," in reality the word emanates from the root לדוג -- "to fish." So in essence, Ya'akov blesses his grandchildren that they should become "many like the fish in the midst of the land." Why does Ya'akov use this curious language? What message does he convey by blessing his grandchildren to grow like fish?
Rashi, basing his comments on the Gemara in Brachos explains,

Just as the fish of the sea are covered by the water, and the 'evil eye' does
not rule over them, so too the children of Yosef - the 'evil eye' does not rule
over them.

Ohr Hachayim gives a different explanation. He suggests that when God creates the world, He gives special blessings to the fish to reproduce because the ocean is a particularly unhospitable place to procreate. For this reason, God increases endows the fish with special ability to thrive and multiply.
Why then does Ya'akov give his grandchildren this special blessing of the fish? Perhaps Ya'akov foresees a day in Egypt when his descendants would no longer be able to reproduce without fear of repercussion. That day comes soon enough when the government decrees death for all infant male children, forcing the women to give birth in secret.
Indeed, Ya'akov's blessing has protected us all too often throughout our history, giving us the will and divine blessing to bring another generation of Jews into the world - sometimes despite great challenge and difficulty -- to carry on our forefather's great legacy.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Table Talk -- Vayigash 5768

Chanukah challenges our entrenched notion of Jewish strength. We generally associate Jewish strength with spiritual strength – with a steadfast devotion to our heritage; a stubborn willingness to sacrifice for our beliefs, and our refusal to abandon Jewish beliefs at any cost. After all, after almost two thousand years of exile, we have scant examples of any other type of Jewish strength.

Yet, the Torah clearly envisions a very different type of strength. God wants the Jewish people to have not just spiritual strength, but physical strength as well. He wishes us to develop economic strength, academic strength, and personal and military strength. And, while we celebrate the miracle of the candles and the spirituality of Chanukah, we would never have kindled those lights were it not for the willingness of the Maccabis to fight for their independence.

This notion of Jewish strength appears in our Parshah. The Torah tells us that when Yosef brings his family to Egypt, ומקצה אחיו לקח -- "some of his brothers he took" to present to the king. Which brothers does he bring? Why does he only bring some of them, and not them all?

Rashi presents two options, first suggesting that Yosef brings the weakest of his brothers before the Phar'oh, because he worries that if Phar'oh would see the stronger, more powerful brothers, he would draft them to lead his military. (It's interesting to note that Yosef makes a great effort to separate and shield his family from the larger Egyptian society.) So who are the weaker brothers? They are Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yissachar and Binyamin - the brothers Moshe only names once and not twice in his final blessings in the Torah.

What surprises me most about this list are the second two names: Shimon and Levi. These very same brothers single-handedly wiped out the entire city of Shechem - albeit after mass circumcision. Still - these are the weak brothers?!

It makes me wonder just how powerfully strong the other brothers must have been.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Table Talk -- Miketz 5768

In his 17th Meditation, Anglican Priest John Donne writes of “for whom the bells tolls,” using the imagery of the ringing bell to signify God’s call to action. He explains,

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

The imagery of the bell strikes us strongly (pun intended), and really works as metaphor for a personal message from God. God does indeed ring a personal bell for each of us, and it’s up to us to listen and hear that toll when it comes. Yet, from where does Donne derive this image? Does he make it up on his own? Far from it. He lifts the powerful language from our parshah.

The Torah tells us that one night Par’oh dreams two disturbing dreams that he cannot understand. The thin cows eat the fat cows; the weak stalks eat the strong stalks – and yet he cannot fathom their meaning. These powerful dreams haunt Par’oh to the point that he even unearths a Hebrew slave – Yosef - from prison to interpret them. In describing Par’oh’s state of mind, the Torah uses wonderful language, telling us, ויהי בבקר ותפעם רוחו – “and it was in the morning, and his spirit was troubled.” (41:8)

The Midrash, wondering about the meaning of the word ותפעם – which we translate as “and was troubled,” explains that it means that היתה מקשת עליו כפעמון הזה – “that [the dream] was beating upon him like a bell.” (The word ותפעם shares the same root as the word פעמון – bell.) Apparently, the bell did indeed toll – but it tolled first for Par’oh in Egypt.