Welcome to Mo-Drash ... the weird confluence of the Jewish tradition of Midrash and me!

What is Midrash? Literally, the word derives from the Hebrew root that expresses interpretation. Figuratively, it is the process by which Jews read between the lines of our sacred stories and seek insight from what we discover from each story, verse, word, letter and stroke of the pen.

Who am I? My name is Adam Morris, but known by many as Rabbi Mo. I spend a lot of my time serving in the role of rabbi, but I am also a husband, a dad, a runner and a 'weekend' craftsman (among other things). I try to move like Abraham to find my Place ... to wrestle like Jacob to know my Place ... and to snicker like Sarah to keep me in my Place.

B'makom she-ani omayd (from The Place where I stand),
Rabbi Mo

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Lech L'cha 5774 - Pack Your Bags!

We meet Abraham and Sarah (or Abram and Sarai, as they are known at this early point in their story) this week again in Torah ... The portion is called Lech L’cha and these are the words that Abram hears from God. These words are the first clue we receive into the character of Abraham. God tells Abram to, ‘Pack Your Bags! ... go, leave your homeland, the land of your birth, your parents’ house ... to a place that I will show you.’ Abram, in order to become Abraham (and Sarai, in order to become Sarah) needed to leave what was familiar, comfortable and insular. This journey was not a mere physical one - but an existential, emotional and spiritual journey. In order to grow, evolve and mature - Abram needed to pack his bags (physical and emotional) and leave home.

Anyone one of us who is a parent or a child (which I think should be most of us!) understands this important aspect of becoming a person. As much as our parents may love and guide us, as much as our homes or homelands may be familiar and life giving to us ... there comes a point (often a painful one) in which we need to extract ourselves in order to better become ourselves. We do not cut off or reject these important relationships, people or the ways that they have impacted us. We do, however, heed the same call that Abraham heard from God: “Leave what is safe and familiar and go to a place that I will show you ... and I will make your name great.”

As the Rocky Mountain Rabbinic Council began its iEngage Israel class this week ... I hear echoes of God’s call to Abraham within the class materials, lectures and discussions. The class (and its supporting curriculum from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel) is designed to give Jews across the political, denominational and age spectrums a chance examine our relationship with Israel and with other Jews in our community. It is a class that will challenge its participants to re-examine our Jewish community’s accepted narrative about why Israel is important and how we translate that importance into relationship. The participants are being asked to leave the friendly confines of their intellectual and emotional homes - at least in the context of their relationship to Israel. They are being asked to extract themselves from a life long narrative and perspective about Israel - in order to consider other ideas about how that relationship may grow, evolve and mature.

And like those journeys from our parents’ homes for Abram, us and our children ... this intellectual one may be painful and cause anxiety, but it also promises greatness. We must remember no matter the journey upon which we may find ourselves: the place that God wants us to see, the greatness ... only comes if we are genuinely ready to pack our bags and and go.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sukkot 5774 - Build, Dwell and Depend

The festival of Sukkot begins tonight (September 18th). Many Jewish Coloradans and their families and friends will find their way to physically sit, eat and/or sleep in a Sukkah this year. As with any ritual, the physical choreography is a way to directing the one observing the ritual to encounter an awareness of a spiritual reality. For many in Colorado - Jewish or not - I believe that the last week of rains and flooding have already opened their hearts and minds to an important spiritual reality related to building and dwelling in the Sukkah.

The recent flood waters devastated so many lives - destroying homes, businesses and taking lives. Across the spectrum of this impact were realizations by tens of thousands of people in Colorado that no matter how physically secure we feel, we are actually quite vulnerable. And in our vulnerability, we discover the true nature of our power and strength. This awareness is a fundamental intention of the mitzvah to build and dwell in a Sukkah. The 14th century Spanish scholar known as the Menorat HaMaor framed is this way: “The human being must leave his or her permanent home and move into a temporary abode that is devoid of wealth and security to remind her or him how deeply each person depends upon God.”

The Sukkah is a temporary hut. It is fairly sturdy for something that is supposedly easily put up and torn down. The Sukkah building at Micah every year seems to coincide with at least one good windy, storm. A couple of times in the past few years I arrived at Micah to see the Sukkah on its side, feet away from its original location. I think this uncertainty is part of the intended feel of the Sukkah. We get ourselves out of our comfortable and secure homes, erect these huts with almost open roofs and flimsy walls and spend our time within those walls and under that roof with those we love. If it rains (or even snows some years) we simply move our meal inside. Perhaps, though, for even a fleeting moment (or more if we are fortunate) we appreciate our blessings; acknowledge how little control we have over the forces of nature and where or upon whom our true dependence lies.

We build a Sukkah and dwell in it so that we understand where our dependence and strength dwells. So, when we realize the vulnerability in ourselves and in other - we know where to turn and we know when to help. As we dwell in our Sukkot this year - the ones in our yards or the ones in our hearts - let us turn to one another and help one another.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Re'eh 5773 - Peace Talks ... Again.

For the first time in three years official representatives of Israel and Palestine are sitting down to engage in formal discussions about creating parameters for peace. We do not have to look very far to find those who think such an endeavor meaningless, hopeless or even dangerous. Cynics question the sincerity of either side’s intentions toward peace, pundits warn that very little movement is possible and then there are those who tell us the talks themselves are too little (Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talk Charade) or too much (Christian Israel-Backers Blast Obama on Peace). If this most recent round of talks were a horse race, the filly called ‘Peace’ might make the odds of a long shot look good. Forget about betting on ‘Peace’, is it even worthwhile watching the race?


Admittedly, the more that the current situation between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people continues the less optimistic I become about a resolution (even) in the near-distant future. Each side continues to become more and more entrenched in its position - building walls (both physical and psychological) between one another. Peace seems like an unattainable, naive abstraction. Reality is too messy, disjointed and plain unfair. Should we just batten down the hatches and defend ourselves against those who would threaten and take what is ours?


I came across a verse in this week’s Torah portion that - while I am sure that I have read it before - surprised me. This week’s portion, Re’eh, continues recounting Moses’ final speeches to the Israelites. This week Moses is reviewing various laws that relate to preserving the community’s holy place and helping to create a community in which holiness is cultivated. As Moses speaks to the people about being aware of and caring for the poor and needy in the community, he tells them: “There will never cease to be needy ones in your land, this is why I command you to open your hand to the poor and needy ... “ (Deuteronomy 15:11) Never?! For all the talk and promise of covenant; for all of the possibilities in redemption from slavery ... I was surprised by this non-utopian, messy, gray vision for the society that they will create. I find two important ideas in this statement: (1) An acknowledgement that no matter what the Israelites might do - their community will always have those in need, those who lack. It will be messy, imperfect and unfair. (2) Despite the messiness, imperfection and unfairness the Israelites are still (choose your own word here:) expected/obligated/commanded to confront it and do something about it. In the face of the size of the task at hand (in this case, hunger and homelessness), it is not acceptable to resign oneself to impotence.

Is it irony? Paradox? A sense of divine humor? Or, maybe it is just a Jewish way of seeing the world. No matter how dire or insurmountable before us the iniquity in the world may seem, we cannot stop opening our hands, our minds or our hearts to those whose lives are impacted by these iniquities. With this nudge from Torah, I will pay attention to the discussions between Israelis and Palestinians. While I will be all too aware of the messiness of our situation, I will also strive to to see the possibilities.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

V'etchanan 5773 - Crossing Lines

Being a young baseball fan, my son is having a hard time getting his head around the concept of an All-Star game. All of the players and teams have been playing so hard against one another (especially those hated Yankees) and then they just stop in the middle of the season and play with each other? Then in a few days they are going to go back to playing against each other? Seriously? When, where and which lines we cross can be a confusing concept for a young baseball fan.

Even for those of us who can wrap our heads around the idea of baseball’s midsummer classic, still may have a tough time with other kinds of lines and the conditions, variables and situations that mandate crossing them or not. Ask President Obama. As president he looks around the world and sees turmoil, injustice, cruelty and violations of basic human rights. When is it the right time and what is the right way to cross the lines between sovereign countries and governments and say something or do something? Ask any Jewish person who cares about the land of Israel. We look across the ocean and see things we love and see things that seem dissonant from our deepest values. When is the right time and what is the right way to cross that line of loyalty and support and offer loving and respectful critique and feedback? Ask any human being. We see a family member or dear friend in trouble (or at least what we perceive as trouble). When is the right time and what is the right way to cross the line to say something that may not be heard or understood and quite possible may injure that person or the relationship?

Unlike baseball’s mid-summer classic, there are no clear and fast rules that tell us when to cross what lines. These life decisions vary, change and depend upon the particular relationship, situation and other variables at play. Then how do we know the right time and right way to cross those lines between us and those around us? In this week’s Torah portion, V’etchanan (from the book of Deuteronomy), we find what may be the most often recited verse in Jewish history: The Shema. “Listen Israel, YHVH/Adonai is our God, YHVH/Adonai is One.” The Shema is not a declaration of monotheism, but something else. It is a declaration of Israel’s relationship to this deity - that YHVH/Adonai is the ONE and ONLY understanding of divinity for the community called Israel. ‘YHVH/Adonai is OUR god.” This declaration is Israel’s attempt at definition and differentiation. This declaration of self-understanding guided, guides and continues to guide Israel as it grows, loves and acts.

In wondering when and how to cross the lines in our lives, we all need what the Shema provides Israel - an understanding of who we are and where we begin and others end. There is not a steadfast template as to when to step on or over those lines between us and others. There is no handbook that guides us how to constructively involve ourselves in the problems of a friend - whether that friend is another country or another person. In each of those moments of decision perhaps the most helpful template is having a clear understanding of how each of us understands the nature of justice, compassion ... of divinity.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Korach 5773 - Shooting Messengers

We don’t have to pay attention too closely to hear messages from people telling us things that we do not want to hear. These messages originate from varied communication methods we access in the public domain and from the people with whom we work, live and love. The messages relate to all kinds of matters: what we put on or in our bodies to what we put through and in our minds. The packaging of these messages can be harsh, loving or somewhere in between. Because these kinds of messages do not feel good, our first defense is to deflect, deny or destroy them by whatever means we have at our disposal. And yet, even though these messages may be unasked for, unexpected, unrefined and even hurtful ... some of them, maybe even just a few might actually contain something of value.

In Torah this week Moses and the Israelites receive a decidedly unfriendly message. In the portion that bears his name, Korach (with some of the Israelites firmly behind him), stands up to threaten the authority of Moses and the Levites. Korach and his followers joined together and confronted Moses: "You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal One is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the community of the Eternal One?" (Numbers 16:3) In the account that follows in the Torah (and in the generations of commentary, as well) Korach and his followers are taken to task for their arrogance and ambition. Korach’s rebellion ends as he confronts Moses before the entire community in a high-noon-esque showdown ... and he and his band are swallowed up by the earth.

It does not seem that Moses or God had any intention to listen to their claim that the entire community should enjoy access to divinity and the holiness that follows such access. And while the form and presentation of the message may have been suspect, the actual message seems downright, uh ... Jewish. At least to my contemporary Jewish ears. Despite their dramatic reaction and violent rejection of Korach, it seems that the core of Korach’s idea has some staying power. How many of us - if reading Korach’s statement completely out of context - would disagree or even reject its meaning? And yet, the people who delivered that message - one that Moses and the Levites did not want to hear - were deflected, denied and summarily destroyed.

I would not suggest every message we hear has the same amount of accuracy or truth. I would suggest that there is probably a significant amount of truth that we reject out of hand because we are not open to hearing it. It may be the messenger or the way that message is delivered that turns us off ... that turns on the mechanisms of deflection, denial and destruction. Whatever it is, we allow that kernel of truth to be swallowed up so that it is out of sight and out of mind - just like Korach. And so, we may miss out on important truths -- truths that help us grow as individuals or ones that help us to understand the people who bring us these truths and in turn strengthen our relationships and our communities.

There is a Korach out there who will soon confront and challenge you ... pay attention and listen before you deflect, deny and allow him and his message to be swallowed up.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Shavuot 5773 - Bringing The Mountain To You

Tonight and tomorrow Jews around the world will commemorate the most significant mountain experience in the history of the Jewish people - Sinai. On the festival of Shavuot we relive this mountain moment that is such an essential part of the Jewish story. At Sinai our spiritual ancestors stood together and directly engaged with the divine - and their lives were changed. In honor of that part of the Jewish story and in the spirit of opening up to such moments in our lives, I invite you to take a few moments to commemorate Shavuot in the next couple of days.

Bringing the Mountain To You - A Shavuot Reflection
  1. Carve out some time where you can sit, relax and reflect.
  2. If you can make it a space where you can experience of bit of the majesty that is part of our Colorado mountains, better yet! 
  3. Bring along something to write with (if that is something you prefer) or something to sip on (if that is something you prefer). 
  4. Make yourself comfortable ... first physically, make sure you are good to sit for some time. 
  5. Then mentally, take a few moments, focus on your breathing, empty your mind of what you have to do or what you did not do ... just clear out your mind of the clutter of the everyday. 
  6. Read this teaching from our tradition a couple of times about the Sinai mountain moment: "When the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, they miraculously were made whole, so that their physical perfection reflected the integrity of their souls. This the Torah describes all the Israelites as ‘standing’ at the foot of the mountain, implying none was crippled; ‘hearing’ the words of God, implying that none was deaf; ‘seeing’ the thunder and lightning, suggesting that none was blind. As they distanced themselves from Sinai and began to grumble about the hardships of the journey, the effect of the miracle began to wear off. Their blemished souls began to be reflected in their blemished bodies." (Numbers Rabbah 7:1) 
  7. Consider the nature of this moment that the commentary suggests. You may think, write or even draw in response to the following prompts: 
  • Remember a time in your life when you felt you were able to ‘stand’ without any weakness or injury. 
  • Remember a time in your life when you felt you were able to ‘see’ with great clarity and vision. 
  • Remember a time in your life when you felt you were able to ‘hear’ with lucidity and comprehension. 
  • Compare and contrast those times - what is similar and different about them? 
  • The commentator names these moments of standing, seeing and hearing at Sinai as ‘miracles’. How comfortable are you applying that term to your moments of standing, seeing and hearing? 
  • How easy or difficult are your moments of standing, seeing and hearing to recreate? 
  • What can you do enable more moments like these in your life?
Take a few more moments to be in the moment, reflect on what you thought about, wrote or drew.
Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Kedoshim 5773 - Why We Run

I am thinking about the heinous crime that was committed on Monday near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Each and every time a tortured soul chooses violence in this way we all feel more vulnerable. We feel more open - than we already are - to pain, loss and death. It is our gut reaction to minimize that vulnerability in the face of such wickedness. And yet, we cannot forget that when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable is when it is possible that we experience incredible things ...

The marathon itself is an exercise in vulnerability. Each runner exposes herself or himself to her or his physical and emotional limits - in the hope of pushing oneself to higher levels of experience. To approach those limits is to spend some time ensconced in vulnerability. Each runner knowingly and trustingly accepts that a community of organizers, volunteers, civil servants, medical professionals and citizens will be present - witnessing that vulnerability and each (in their own way) helping every runner find the transformation she or he seeks by allowing for and facing that vulnerability. Without this community, the runner cannot realize that goal.

Speaking of goals, in Torah this week our spiritual ancestors are given quite a goal. In the portion of Leviticus called Kedoshim, the Israelites are charged and challenged: Be Holy - Kedoshim Tihyu. Commentators like to make note that this charge is given not to each individual (in the singular), but to the entire community (in the plural). The idea being that the state of Holiness is something that needs to be achieved - not merely among others, but with others. I like how Martin Buber might have understood this concept: “For Buber, holiness is found not in rising above the level of one’s neighbors, but in relationships, in human beings recognizing the latent divinity of other people, even as God recognizes the latent divinity in each of us.” (Etz Hayim Torah Commentary)

The experience of the marathon - for the community it takes to host a marathon - is emblematic of this concept of Holiness. The criminal or criminals who planted those bombs at the Boston Marathon sought to strike directly at this vulnerable and holy place of ours. Even as we reel at the images and stories from the scene, we cannot abandon that charge to ‘Be Holy’, we cannot stop seeking to realize and liberate the divinity in others, we cannot stop running marathons.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Shemini 5773 - When Was Your Last Good Blush?

When was the last time you blushed? Physiologically speaking, when was the last time you were in a situation when uncomfortable circumstances caused an irregular flow of blood to your head and caused a reddish tone to appear in some form on your face (often the cheeks)? Emotionally speaking, when was the last time that you felt embarrassment or shame because of something you heard, said or did that was inappropriate, disrespectful or disgraceful??

We do not live in a society in which we blush a lot. We live lives in a more public eye - everything we do seems to get quickly and abundantly documented and shared via the wonders of the web. So, perhaps we are immune to frequent moments of shame. We live in an era that encourages (and even rewards) personal expression (the more outrageous, the better). So, perhaps a feeling like shame inhibits such pursuits and developments.

Are we evolving past the point as a species that we find shame a useful emotion or blushing as a productive physiological response to shame? Will shame and the blush go the way of the appendix - as anachronistic remnants of once useful ‘organs’? Or, do these built in ‘defenses’ of shame and the blush hold some deeper meaning or purpose for we human beings as we continue to understand our existential place.

In this week’s foray (Shemini) into the book of Leviticus, we continue wading through the accounting of the priestly and cultic laws and customs. Early on in the portion - in a seemingly innocuous line in the text - the Torah says that Moses told Aaron to approach the altar where the sacrifices were to be done. Aaron was the high priest, so it seems rather obvious that he would be the one approaching the altar. Not so obvious for the 11th century French commentator, Rashi. Rashi wanted to know why Aaron - who was the high priest - needed Moses to tell him to approach the altar at all. Rashi’s answer to his question: Aaron was ashamed. (He does not tell us why.) Not only does Rashi suggest that Aaron was ashamed (he may have been blushing, too), but Rashi teaches that Moses said something very helpful to Aaron (to help get him to the altar) and instructive to us as we consider the emotion of shame: “Why are you ashamed? For this you were chosen!” Moses (or Rashi) suggests that because Aaron was able to feel shame, that he ascended to this sacred role of high priest.

Our tradition suggests to us to consider the powerful place that shame may hold in our lives. Our spiritual development depends partly on our ability to emotionally and physically experience the impact of actions that are inappropriate, disrespectful or disgraceful. This kind of healthy shame empowers us to understand our limits and to establish healthy boundaries between the human beings with whom we share the world.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Pesach 5773 (Too Much)

We can be too much for our own good ...

As many of us look at our Seders in the rear-view mirror (and I hope they were joyous and meaningful Seders), we still have the prospect of plenty of Matzah in our near future. Matzah is the symbol of the Exodus from Egypt, the bread of affliction and ultimately it is the culinary actualization of a chametz free-world.

Chametz is the name for those things that do not pass the Passover test. It is the name for foods that have been allowed to leaven - to puff up, to expand or to enlarge. The foods we eat during Passover are the ones that fall in line behind the Matzah and limit their amount of puffing, or expanding or enlarging.

Let us not only think of Chametz as a culinary category, for that only touches the surface of the depth of Chametz. Chametz names a spiritual element, as well. It describes what happens to human beings when we make choices that cause 'puffing up', expansion and general enlargement that is detrimental to our collective well being. While, this kind of Chametz may be more difficult to find than the food related Chametz that we find in our pantries each year - this kind of Chametz may be more pervasive in our lives.

Now that Passover has arrived and houses around the world have been successfully searched for Chametz, it is time for another kind of search for Chametz to commence. Pay attention to the puffiness, expansion and enlargement in your life. What choices have you made that have caused an unnecessary and possibly harmful expansion of your physical world? Parts of your body or your home may feel as if there is too much of something (or many things). What decisions have you made that have caused a destructive and limiting puffiness in your spiritual world? You may be feeling emotions or harboring attitudes that have become so large that they inhibit your ability to make loving connections with those closest to you.

The fact of the matter is that in our efforts to make our way in this world and create safe and nurturing places for us and our loved ones - we can make, collect and acquire too much for our own good.  So much stuff - things, emotions, attitudes - that it gets is the way of living and loving.  Don't just spend this week eating Matzah and worrying about putting Chametz in your mouth, accept the gift and challenge that Passover offers to consider and pay attention to the Chametz that you put into your mind, your heart and your soul.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Vayakel/Pekudei 5773 (Drones Beget Drones)

This week I am wondering why I am not so outraged that Rand Paul will not shut up ... Senator Paul is engaging in a ‘Mr. Smith Goes To Washington’ kind of filibuster, protesting President Obama’s nomination to head the CIA. The point that Senator Paul keeps returning to is his grave concern that the President holds the power to order a drone strike on American citizens under ‘extreme circumstances’. I have never found myself on the same side of a political issue as Senator Rand. Nor I as I try to understand the reasons behind his filibuster, do I see a lot symmetry in this case between our political ideologies. And as outrageous as his claim and fear of drones striking Americans on American soil may be, I have studied too much history to blithely discount such a concern.

It is not at all an uncommon historical occurrence for those in power (or those who seek power) to consider their fellow human beings an impediment or threat. Such situations occur when those in positions of authority or influence stop seeing the humanity of the other human beings who inhabit the same state or community. (i.e when governments see their citizens as drones, then it is easier to send drones to deal with them - (seeing) drones beget (using) drones). Instead of seeing human beings - who contain and emanate sparks of Divinity and the Sacred, they see obstacles and threats. And then they act accordingly.

In this week’s Torah portion - Vayakel/Pekudei - we (again) have an accounting of the structure, elements and various details of the portable Tabernacle that traveled with the Israelites in the wilderness. One would hope for a more dramatic and fitting end to the book of Exodus -- the book that begins in slavery in Egypt, then sees the dramatic redemption of the Israelites and then their revelatory encounter with God at Sinai. Instead, we get a rehashing (It is the second or third time already!) of the pieces, parts and instructions for the Israelites wilderness DIY project.

Within this rehashing is a subtle, yet helpful perspective as we consider the ways that - when at our worst - we human beings tend to regard one another. The book of Exodus begins in Egypt -- in slavery. Slavery exemplifies the worst of this inability to see the divinity in the other. It is the ultimate in seeing others as things to be used or to be disregarded when their utility ends. We end Exodus in Pekudei -- which derives from the Hebrew root that has to do with ‘taking a count’ or ‘taking note of’. We end Exodus with a laborious counting and noting of each and every element of the Tabernacle.

Here I turn to Ovadiah Sforno (15th century Italian commentator) who had something to say about this counting and noting:

“ …each one of them (the articles counted) was worthy to be considered as important and to       be called by its private (individual) name, not only as part of a generic group (category). This is certainly justified (regarding) each one of the holy vessels …"  (Sforno on Exodus 38:21, translation from Sforno: Commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz)

Sforno speaks of the act of counting the vessels as a way of remembering and acknowledging their inherent worth and value. If such an approach is true of the articles of the Tabernacle, how much the more so is this concept is true for living beings? The counting of these mere vessels is an interesting contrast to the way that our ancestors were ‘counted’ at the beginning of Exodus.

... and an important reminder for us, as well. This tendency toward having trouble remembering, counting or taking note of the humanity in others is embedded deep within our psyche. We find its roots within responding to the needs and demands of surviving in the world. Living only in that perception of reality is akin to being slaves in Egypt. Expecting that our leaders and our institutions seek to honor the sparks of divinity in all human beings liberates us from that bondage. Seeking to cultivate that spark within one another enables us make the entire world a Tabernacle (just like what is described in Exodus) and to encounter the divine in each and every moment and place in our world.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ki Tissa 5773 (Why Can't We Get 'It'?)

This week I am wondering why it is so hard for us to get 'it'. By ‘us’ I mean not only the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, but ‘us human beings’, as well ...

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, we encounter our ancestors’ dramatic plunge into spiritual philandering. One Redeemer, who is not seen for forty days. One Golden Calf, which is constructed. (In a frenzied panic the Israelites feel abandoned by ‘that man, Moses’ and cajole Aaron in to building an idol and facilitating all of the debauchery required by the worshipping of such an idol) That One Golden Calf is destroyed by that One Redeemer. (Moses has none of it, smashes the hot-off-of-the-divine-press tablets of the law into the aforementioned calf, grinds the remainder of the calf to dust and forces the Israelites to drink a Golden Calf cocktail - guaranteed to cause internal and intestinal distress.)

Clearly, the bad guys, the antagonists, the fools in this week’s installment are the Israelites. (Alright, Aaron should get his fair due, as well ...) This group of spiritually stunted slaves are just a few minutes (figuratively, not literally) removed from their redemption from centuries of slavery through a series of miraculous natural events: darkness that fills the Egyptians homes, but not their own; death that comes to the first born of their overlords, but to their children; a body of water that splits in time for them to cross to safety and then conveniently un-splits to wipe out the greatest military force known in that corner of the world. Then following their exodus from Egypt, the entire group of them settle in at Sinai for an unprecedented, yet intimate encounter with God. After these events are still in their rear view mirror, despite their current reality (freedom), the evidence (there seems to be some powerful entity who has their collective backs) and the consequences (how about this little ditty from Sinai: I remember the iniquity of those who turn against me until the THOUSANDTH generation) ... they still look to Aaron and say: “Hey, you ... we’ve got this idea about a calf.”

These people just plain don’t get it! They are dense. They are clueless. They are ... us. Yes, I said that they are us. It is very easy to pile on the Israelites at this point. The narrative of the story encourages us to do so ... from God and Moses’ anger, to their imbibing of the remains of their sin, to the eventual killing of those who Moses feels do not learn from this incident. I think that we are missing a larger picture if we simply look down our noses at ‘those poor, misguided and ignorant Israelites’ without at least acknowledging a larger truth that is a spiritual reality for you and I. Despite everything our ancestors knew about God and Moses, despite their own experience and despite their understanding of the facts on the ground - it was still exceedingly difficult for them to overcome their upbringing, their slave mentality or the immediate impact that building and worshipping the calf would bring them.

Do you know anyone like that? Someone who knows from their own experience the significance of a certain course of action. Someone, who sees the concrete evidence that suggests avoiding this course of action would be advisable. Someone, who understands the negative consequences that will follow such a course of action. And yet, there are powerful forces - internal and external - that push that individual to decide to act in contrast to all of this experience, evidence and potential harm.

I do - and I do not have to look farther than the face staring back at me in the mirror. I do - and I do not have to look further than stories entrusted to me of families who struggle with addiction or abuse. I do - and I do not have to look further than than politicians and ideologues who cling rigidly to destructive economic or social policies. This reality - as revealed in this week’s story - is one we confront every day in both mundane and monumental moments. Mundane moments when (like in my case) they are deciding whether or not to enjoy that maple frosted donut, again). Monumental moments when they are struggling to not take that drink or trying to express their fear, anxieties or even love in a manner that is not hurtful or destructive.  Whether the moments are mundane or monumental, we can each fill in the blanks.

I do not believe that we should make excuses for our ancestors or for ourselves. We should not be investing our bodies, minds and souls in pursuits - like Golden Calves - that block our way from the Sacred. However, we should not underestimate - when judging ourselves or others - the profoundly powerful forces we confront when reaching for the Divine in our lives. Our ancestors found these forces - on their journey to their Promised Land - to be genuine, real and formidable. We, too, are on a journey and to reach our ultimate destination must honestly acknowledge these forces and unwaveringly commit ourselves to facing them, overcoming them and instead of building calves - to welcome the Sacred and the Divine into our lives.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Tetzaveh/Purim 5773 - Digesting Haman

I am thinking about Haman this week. Purim arrives this Saturday night and Jews around the world will be retelling - in various and sundry forms - the tale found in the book of Esther. Haman, as you may remember, serves as villain to the Jews of Shushan in the story and as the archetypical antisemite in our hearts and minds. His dastardly plans are thwarted by our heroes: Mordechai and Esther. In the end Haman swings (from the gallows) and the Jewish community sings (in celebration).

The story evolves as it should - people who value justice, compassion and peace should always stand up to those individuals and institutions who seek to limit, hurt or destroy these values and the people who hold them dear. Such epic confrontations make great stories and teach important ideals. So, why do we first defeat him and then eat him?

The Jews of Shushan defeat Haman and foil his plans. When we tell the story each year we gobble up Hamentaschen - Haman’s Ears. Am I being too literal? Perhaps taking this story and its accompanying snacking a little too seriously? I love a Hamantaschen as much as the next guy (make mine poppy seed, please), but seriously what are we doing? Are we - in a symbolically barbaric manner - signifying our success by eating the spoils of victory or attempting to display our dominance over the defeated foe?

There has got to be more to Haman and his role in the story (and our metaphorical ingesting of his ears). When we read and engage with our sacred texts, we don’t stop on this initial level. I wonder if this story is about Haman and the consummate evil he embodies or if this story more about us and the way we respond to the Hamanesque people and institutions in our lives?

There is part of the story on the book of Esther upon we often do not focus. After Esther confronts Haman and the King agrees to have Haman killed, there is still the small problem of the decree that Haman ordered to destroy the Jews of the kingdom. Since this decree cannot be rescinded, the king puts Mordechai in Haman’s post and gives the Jews permission to bear arms and defend themselves. The ‘defense’ that ensues produces more than 75,000 deaths of those who were foes of the Jews and a ‘pachad hayehudim - fear of the Jews’ - that falls across the kingdom. (Don’t believe me? -- Look it up: Esther Chs. 8-10).

After fighting the injustice, hatred and intolerance promoted by Haman ... the Jews kill tens of thousands of people. They become feared by their fellow countrymen and women. Was killing and instilling fear the most effective way to confront Haman? Was such a result inevitable in fighting evil? What happened?

Perhaps when we tell the story each year - the whole story; and, when we eat the Hamantaschen each year, the whole Hamentaschen - we have an opportunity to remember the trials, tribulations and pitfalls of fighting the Hamans in our lives. The danger exists that we may end up internalizing (eating, ingesting) what we fight. We might find ourselves, our ideas and even our actions tainted by the methods we choose to defeat that which threatens us.

When we tell this particular story of ours, we are bidden to name and acknowledge the Hamans in our world AND pay attention to how we confront them. Hamans take many forms - they might be corrupt and immoral political leaders; they may also be other important figures in our lives; they may be institutions that have influence over our lives; they may even be physical, emotional or spiritual maladies that threaten our well being. Whatever form these Hamans take -- when we confront them just as Esther and Mordechai did - we must remember that how we fight them may be as important as defeating them.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

You Shouldn't Have, Really! - Terumah 5773

What got me thinking in this week’s Torah portion is: What God was thinking? ... but I’ll get there in a moment.

As the calendar winds around towards Valentine’s Day and and even though it is not a big day on the Jewish calendar, there is a spiritual aspect of relationship that this ‘Hallmark’ created day brings to light. In preparation for Valentine’s Day Couples are considering what to give or not to give to one another. In the actual exchange of gifts between the millions of people who do so on Valentine’s Day, the odds are that a fair percentage of these millions will deal with unmet expectations. After all of the proper and polite responses and expression of gratitude for what the gift in question may be - the receiver of said gift will turn inward and internally ask the age old questions: What was she/he thinking?! If she/he knows me at all, if she/he loves, then how or why would they choose this gift for me?  You shouldn't have! No really, you shouldn't have.

Shallow, you say? To be so ungrateful for such gifts from another? I believe this happens to us all of the time in the course of relationship ... and in deeper ways than the exchange of elegantly wrapped doodads. We look to others to meet our expectations and our needs ... and often decide only within the narrow confines of our expectations and needs the proper measuring stick of our loved ones response. We keep a scorecard - not necessarily with malice - but a tally of how they respond. The metric may be time, words, gestures, decisions or even actual wrapped gifts. And often as we review this ongoing scorecard, we find ourselves far behind in this game we play.

Now onto: What was God was thinking? This week’s Torah portion is called: Terumah - from the book of Exodus. Following their direct encounter with God at Sinai, the Israelites accept the terms of the commandments that Moses offers them on God’s behalf. God now wants the people to ‘Make Me a Sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.’ Through Moses, God instructs each person to bring a Terumah - a gift - for the construction of this place where God will dwell among them. So, they are building a pretty important place. A place for the deity/entity/being who just kicked some serious Egyptian butt and saved them from generations of slavery. A place that will serve as a conduit for them to maintain a connection to this deity/entity/being who at their Sinai rendezvous revealed to the people an opportunity to glimpse at the mystery and reality of the universe. Speaking of expecting some pretty serious gifts ...

And yet, the expectation for the gift is not so high at all (or maybe it is). The Torah describes that the gifts shall be accepted from those ‘who hearts so move them’. It is not simply that God does not expect incredible gifts from everyone, it is that God does not expect gifts from everyone? (Not even a thank you note!) God only expects what each person would genuinely give. Even if that gift is way less than what they should give. Even if that gift is no gift. It is only an acceptable gift - no matter its quantity or quality - when it comes from one whose heart so moves him or her.

Perhaps it is something worthwhile (and challenging) to consider, as we look to those we love and through our needs and expectations determine what ‘gifts’ we expect from them. In the process of building a place where divinity dwells, the only expectation - was in essence - the willingness to receive whatever was wholeheartedly offered. In building the Sanctuary, it was more than enough ... in our lives with those we love, can it be the same for us?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Duality Reality - Mishpatim 5773

What got me thinking in this week’s Torah portion - Mishpatim - is something said toward the end of the portion. Most of the portion is Moses communicating ‘mishpatim’ - laws for the people to follow. As the end of this long list. Moses goes before God and the Torah says that to Moses, God was an 'all consuming fire'. Literally, an ‘eating’ fire. What got me thinking is that there is another little more known instance of Moses communicating with God - their first encounter at the Burning Bush - God also appears to Moses as fire. However, the Torah tells us that this fire was the exact opposite -- it was a non-eating fire, it did NOT consume the bush (or Moses for that matter).

What gives? If we seek to disprove the immutability of the text or search for evidence of the ongoing historical game of 'telephone' that lies behind the Torah, then the appearance of these dual, opposite God-fires may offer helpful evidence. These are not my goals -- my goal is take this small snowball of a question and then push and prod it down the slope of my mind and see where it goes ...

So, what about all of the dualities in the world? What about the constant parade of two ideas/feelings/natures that seem to live on opposite ends of important spectrums in my life? Often I find myself with a strong affinity towards one and an equally strong indifference or aversion to the other. This constant dance along these spectrums of opposites take place in the realms of the intrapersonal and extrapersonal. Take the consuming and non-consuming fires of introversion and extroversion. Wherever we each fall along this spectrum, we must admit the dynamic tension between the two is essential to our lives. If you would label yourself as ‘introvert’ -- it is not only to upon you to be aware, honor and cultivate the strengths that come from that way of engaging the world - but to welcome the spirit of extroversion into your life, as well. Complete with the gifts and challenges it offers. When you, as introvert, encounter and engage with the extroverts in your life it is upon you to do so with understanding and appreciation as to how both of you bring essential aspects to one another and to the larger whole that is the dynamic of life.

I think about the way that the Jewish mystical tradition understands the interplay of such opposites. Within one of the mystical blueprints of reality - known as the Sefirot - there are two distinct and different sides. The interplay of the energies of each side is essential to the forward progress of all aspects of life. Not unlike the introvert and extrovert model, one side exhibits the power of restraint and the other the power of embrace. The energies of these two sides of the blueprints come together toward other energies that can only be harnessed by such a union. It is a spiritual Venn diagram of how the dialectic of life grows and progresses.

Too much wordy, foggy, ambiguous mystical language? Think of it this way ... Think of light and water. How completely different they are ... in how they are experienced, their make-up. And yet, there are times when as different as they are ... say right after a thunderstorm wraps up, they join together at some intersection on their spectrum of differences ... and wow, it’s a rainbow.

Duality seems to be a reality. The reality of duality might be two-fold -- just like the two God-fires - they may or may not consume you. These internal or external opposite poles energize and enervate. They intimidate and elevate. They motivate and frustrate. So, pay attention - for these fires can both burn you and bring you light.