Pieces to a Scattered Puzzle

Aug 27, 2009 at 10:14 AM

Parashat Ki Tetze

On the outset, this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze, seems to be just a condensed list of random instructions. It also seems to leave out familiar content found in most of the other portions in the Torah.

Ki Tetze lacks the familiar phrases of G-d instructing Moses to speak to the people of Israel. Additionally, it never even mentions Moses or his brother Aaron. Another peculiarity is that most of the Torah portions contain stories that bring together the different commandments, giving it a sense of continuity. However, Ki Tetze seems to be a spattering of a bunch of different mitzvot, without any kind of intertwined story. There seems to be a complete lack of any apparent order or theme.

To understand the purpose of Ki Tetze, one has to think about it as a puzzle. When one examines the different commandments on a deeper level, the mitzvot begin to exemplify a common thread that intertwines each of the commandments with one another. This common unifying thread is relationships and forbidden unions. When one understands this theme, the portion begins to take on new meaning. What is the purpose of these seemingly unrelated mitzvot? The purpose is to instruct us in the proper and improper way to conduct ourselves with others.

Ki Tetze begins with mitzvot concerning the relationship of an Israelite man who wishes to marry a captive woman. It goes on to mention the instructions for a wayward son, and the obligation to extend goodness toward a fellow person: “You are not to watch your brother’s ox or sheep straying and behave as if you hadn’t seen it (Deut. 22:1).” Additionally, “If you find something they lost, you must not ignore it (22:3).”

The entire portion discusses rules of unions, and serves as a reminder of the importance of making sure a relationship is not “mixed,” or impure. As such, there are mitzvot that also serve as reminders to avoid impure relationships and unions. These are the laws of shatnetz, the mixing of species and threads (22:6-11), and the wearing of tzitzit (22:12), which serve as a reminder to observe all the mitzvot.

The remainder of the portion continues with instructions regarding relationships, and who can and cannot enter into the assembly of Israel. These commandments are meant to keep the community of Israel's relationship with HaShem pure. Ki Tetze also deals with the mitzvot concerning those who have violated the instructions regarding relationships (punishments), or to clarify what to do to end a phase of a relationship, as exemplified by the laws concerning the giving of a get, a written document of divorce (24:1-4).

The point of Ki Tetze is relationships, and specifically how to conduct ourselves in relation to one another. This is the essence of holiness. For G-d takes this matter seriously. The Torah repeatedly instructs us on our relationships – both with G-d, and to others.

May we, with G-d’s help, merit that level of unity with each other and with our Creator. “Barcheinu Avinu, kulano k’echad - Bless us, our Father, all of us as one.”

Crossing the Country

Aug 19, 2009 at 10:36 AM

We apologize if the posts have been a little sparse the last week and a half. As many of you know, we have been packing up our home in Los Angeles in preparation for our move to the East Coast.

As I write this, I am sitting in a hotel room in Knoxville, TN about to begin Day 4 (and our last day) of our cross-country road trip. So far we have hit 7 states in 3 days ... and a few more to hit today!

We are excited about the new things living on the East Coast will bring, and the new kind of community we are looking to build (alongside some of you!).

So far it has been a great, yet quick trip. Although we have made very few stops, we have taken the time to visit with some family and friends on the way. Sunday night we stayed with some family of Monique's in Albuquerque, and on Monday morning had breakfast with Rabbi Russ and Jane Resnik (Rabbi Russ is the Executive Director of the UMJC). Monday was a great opportunity to enjoy some time visiting, and discussing our vision for a new type of emergent congregation in a Messianic Jewish context.

Last night on our way through Nashville, TN we met up with our friends Roman and Alaina, who many of you know for their innovative music and services. Over dinner at a little vegetarian Indian restaurant we caught up on each others lives and heard about their new CD which has just been released. To check out their music and to get a CD, check out their page.

So stay tuned as we discuss more of our vision for the future of Messianic Judaism, and the new kinds of communities we'll need to survive into the future!

Read this Book!

Aug 10, 2009 at 2:30 PM

On the recommendation of our friend, Yahnatan Lasko, I've been devouring the book Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews can Transform the American Synagogue by Rabbi Sidney Schwarz. Reflecting insights gleaned from the late 90s, the book chronicles the success of four American synagogues in building vibrant communities of former "Jewish dropouts." They are:

- Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Massachusetts (Reform)
- The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in Bronx, New York (Orthodox)
- Adat Shalom Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland (Reconstructionist)
- Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Manhattan (Conservat-ish)

Between the two of us, we have underlined half the book and scribbled in the margins of nearly every page. It is a book that we wish we could send to every congregational leader we know. (((NUDGE))) It should be required reading for RO'I candidates. Since that would cost a fortune, over the next few weeks we'll cherry pick the highlights and discuss them here, under the tag "Finding a Spiritual Home."

Food of Complacency

Aug 7, 2009 at 3:14 PM

Parashat Eikev

Food: Something many of us enjoy … and maybe often a little too much. Reading through our Torah portion, Eikev, I thought about the great holiday dinners of Pesach, Rosh HaShanah, Thanksgiving and others. There is nothing like that satiated feeling after an excellent meal, where you feel like curling up on the floor and drifting off into a “food coma.”

When we are without food, we cry out to G-d like our ancestors did in the wilderness, wondering why G-d has abandoned us. We kvetch and complain without faith in G-d’s provision. And yet, when G-d does bring nourishment into our lives, whether physically or spiritually, we often momentarily thank HaShem before wolfing down our food, and again fall quickly back into complacency.

Judaism teaches that in all things we must bless HaShem. And how much more so in those difficult times, like when we are happy, full, and content after a wonderful meal? Torah teaches us that although we are commanded to enjoy the finer things in life, we should remember there are finer spiritual delicacies as well:

A person does not live by bread alone but on everything that comes from the mouth of HaShem. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Many faith traditions have a custom to bless God before we eat. We do this in Judaism as well. However, the Torah emphasizes that our greatest blessing should come AFTER we eat:

You will eat and be satisfied, and you will bless HaShem your G-d for the good land He has given you. (Deuteronomy 8:10)

Hence, the mitzvah for Birkat HaMazon. When our natural tendency is to slip into a food coma, Torah instructs us to acknowledge G-d after we have eaten so that even in our satisfaction, we give thanks to our Provider. This reminds us that our true life source is not physical food alone, but HaShem, the Creator of all things.

Moshe links the command to bless G-d after we have eaten to G-d’s provision of manna from heaven. The manna was a spiritual sustenance that the rabbis recognized nourished the soul as well as the body. According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe:

In truth however, Moshe’s words are applicable now as well, because it is not the physical efforts of working the land alone that causes the land to yield produce. Rather, man’s efforts merely create a ‘vehicle’ into which God places His blessings, and it is the Divine blessing which provides us with sustenance. Therefore, even the food which grows from the ground is in fact ‘food from heaven.’ (Likutei Sichos 16)

As we daily eat and are satisfied, let us not forget that it is not by bread alone that we live. When those times in our lives arise when it is easier to just slip into a food coma, let us overcome those moments and use them as a vehicle for blessing G-d. This was the lesson of our Mashiach when he too encountered temptation in the wilderness (see Matthew 4:1-4). Instead of giving-in to simple satisfaction, he countered the Adversary with the exact words from our Torah portion.

May we also remember that we do not live by bread alone. As followers of our Mashiach, we are continually nourished spiritually as well. As we eat, let us give thanks to our Creator and for His daily provision in our lives.

Prayer is of Consequence

Aug 4, 2009 at 3:41 AM

What is a Jewish community if it is not first a house of prayer? And what is a Messianic Jewish community if it does not exist to bring Jews together in a vibrant, soul-shaking experience of Jewish communal prayer?

A study published in 2002 about Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (BJ) in New York City, yields that community's response to these questions:
Abraham Joshua Heschel says it is a fact that in certain places prayer is of consequence. The leaders, the community, approach prayer as if it matters, not as a gimmick for Jewish continuity, not for social purposes, to bring kids within Yiddishkayt. Prayer as prayer matters. If prayer doesn't matter, then why are we doing this? Why are we wasting our time if these words and these prayers don't matter?
BJ's rabbis believe [that prayer] must be first experienced emotionally and spiritually, rather than understood intellectually and analytically. Consequently, even though many members have only limited knowledge of Hebrew and many do not come from observant backgrounds, there is little instruction or step-by-step explanation of the liturgy at services. Increasing Jewish literacy is important, but it is a separate activity from prayer that is "of consequence." "Learning," Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein explains, “is understood with your mind. Prayer is understood with your soul.” Or, as Rabbi Roly Matalon put it, "Tefillah is not a class." Their goal is for congregants to be so moved by the experience of prayer that they will be inspired to study and take advantage of the panoply of educational opportunities offered by the synagogue.
Instead of didactically instructing the congregation, the rabbis see themselves as "spiritual cables" who, through their own emotional involvement in prayer and their Kavanah (intention in prayer), model, inspire, and guide the prayer of the congregation. Rabbi Roly explained the importance of rabbis genuinely praying with their congregations by referring to a passage in Heschel's Man's Quest for God:
Such an atmosphere [of prayer] is not created by ceremonies, gimmicks or speeches, but by the example of prayer, by a person who prays. You create the atmosphere not around you but within you. I am a congregant and I know from personal experience how different the situation is when the rabbi is concerned with prayer instead of with how many people attend the service; the difference in a service in which the rabbi comes prepared to respond to thirty centuries of Jewish experience and one in which he comes to review the book of the month or the news of the day.
The rabbis own engagement in prayer is most obvious in the physical, at times ecstatic, worship that is part of most services. They are bodily and emotionally involved with the liturgy: the rabbis close their eyes often, they clap, they move to the music while pounding out the beat on the bimah with their fists, and at times they lift their arms in a Hasidic gesture of simultaneously raising the level of excitement and transporting the congregation to a higher level.