D’var Torah: Vayeira

On Nov. 9, I led Shabbat services at Temple Concord for the first time. Here’s the d’var Torah I wrote for the occasion:

When I agreed to lead tonight’s service, I did not check this week’s Torah portion first. If I had, I would have seen that Vayeira is one of the most action-packed parashot of the year!

I’m going to give you a quick summary with help from a website that promises the parsha in a nutshell. Please forgive me if it reads like a soap opera synopsis.

Adonai appears to Abraham three days after the first Jew’s circumcision at age 99.

Abraham rushes off to prepare a meal for three guests who appear in the desert heat. One of the three — who are angels disguised as men — announces that, in a year, the barren Sarah will have a baby. Sarah laughs.

Abraham pleads with God to spare the wicked city of Sodom.

Two of the three disguised angels arrive in the doomed city, where Abraham’s nephew, Lot, extends his hospitality to them. The two guests reveal that they have come to overturn the place, and to save Lot and his family. Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt when she looks back at the burning city as they flee.

Sarah gives birth to a son, who is named Isaac.

Hagar and Ishmael are banished from Abraham’s home and wander in the desert. God hears the dying boy’s cry and saves his life by showing his mother a well.

God tests Abraham’s devotion by commanding him to sacrifice Isaac. Isaac is bound and placed on the altar, and Abraham raises the knife to slaughter his son. A voice from heaven calls to stop him; a ram is offered in Isaac’s place.

Next on As the Torah Turns: Abraham receives the news of the birth of a daughter to his nephew.

Stay tuned, folks: The baby is named Rebecca!

***

There are dozens of lessons worth discussing here, numerous opportunities to apply the Torah’s wisdom to our lives. There are also numerous moments that might make us question God’s intentions, Abraham’s parenting and Sarah’s heart. I will leave most of these for another time, and a more learned speaker.

The portion offers the very first example of bikur cholim, and establishes the imperative to visit the sick just as God visited Abraham. Another lesson of this portion, one I’d like to underline this evening, is the idea of hospitality. In Abraham’s story, you can see that he found it more important to welcome guests than to receive the divine presence.

I would suggest that this week, with the devastation of Hurricane Sandy so very close to us, that visiting the sick and offering hospitality to those in need are among the most urgent demands on our time and resources as Jews and as human beings.

Our community has endured the pain of natural disaster and understands the suffering, dislocation and frustration of those in New York City, New Jersey and elsewhere who are struggling to recover and rebuild. We know the stress and strain of going more than a week without electricity, of seeing our homes ruined by water and wind.

We also know how long the road back to “normal” life will be for many of those hit hardest by the storm.

The Union for Reform Judaism has established a Hurricane Relief Fund and is accepting donations online. You can donate money to the Red Cross in any number of ways, even by text!

And there’s now an urgent need for blood donors, too. The Johnson City Blood Donation Center is open nearly every day, Davis College just down the street has a drive on Monday and you can even go to a blood drive at the mall next weekend. There are ways to help, even if we can’t write a big check. I always say that giving blood is one of my favorite kinds of community service because I get to lie down for a bit and then eat something sweet!

***

Some are determined to find a message in the wreckage. It’s a test, some say. An opportunity to prove our strength and virtue. Others may see a punishment for wickedness, a storm sent by a vengeful God, the same one who destroyed Sodom.

My views of the natural world are incompatible with these notions. And I do not believe in God the Micromanager, that Adonai is somehow responsible for the minutiae of daily life, preserving one family in safety while sending terror to another.

I do believe that our faith can give us the strength and the courage to do exceptional things, to overcome incredible challenges. That God can hear our cry for help just as Ishmael’s cry was heard. What comes our way may not be a well sent by God, but a reservoir of goodwill from another person — or even the revelation that we have had the inner resources to prevail all along.

***

I’d like to share with you this prayer, adapted from Rabbi Jack Riemer’s New Prayers for the High Holy Days and posted this week on the URJ website. It’s titled “We Cannot Pray to You.”

We cannot pray to You, O God,
to banish war,
for You have filled the world
with paths to peace,
if only we would take them.

We cannot pray to You
to end starvation,
for there is food enough for all,
if only we would share it.

We cannot merely pray
for prejudice to cease,
for we might see
the good in all
that lies before our eyes,
if only we would use them.

We cannot merely pray
“Root out despair,”
for the spark of hope
already waits within the human heart,
for us to fan it into flame.

We must not ask of You, O God,
to take the task that You
have given us.
We cannot shirk,
we cannot flee away,
Avoiding obligation for ever.

Therefore we pray, O God,
for wisdom and will, for courage
to do and to become,
not only to look on
with helpless yearning
as though we had no strength.

For Your sake and ours
speedily and soon, let it be:
that our land may be safe,
that our lives may be blessed.

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Living a life of Jewish integrity

Lighting Hanukkah candles with my kids.

Young people at my synagogue, Binghamton’s Temple Concord, are wrestling with some mighty large ideas as part of this year’s confirmation class. I’m speaking to the teens tonight at the invitation of our rabbi. The overarching question for our session is “What must a person do to live a life of Jewish integrity?”

Sheesh! I feel just a bit out of my depth on this one. Though I’m now a temple president, I didn’t set out to be a Super Jew, nor do I really feel like one. It has been a steady, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other sort of thing for me.

I attended Hebrew school. Became bat mitzvah. Went to confirmation class. And to Jewish summer camp. Served as a kindergarten aide in my hometown temple’s religious school. Became president of the local chapter of B’nai B’rith Girls. And so on and so forth, until I found myself organizing a Passover seder in the dorm during college.

I choose to be a Reform Jew because the values, rituals and traditions (and, yes, the food) give meaning to my life. I think there are numerous ways to be a good person and to lead a good life, but being grounded in this particular religious tradition makes it easier to see one of those ways.

I appreciate being part of a religious movement that encourages me to think deeply, to care about social justice and even to question authority. I appreciate that the Reform movement operates not in a vacuum but with a full awareness of the challenges and opportunities that are part of life in 21st century America. (Is it ever all right to text while I’m at temple? Is it OK for my kids to do an Easter egg hunt with my non-Jewish in-laws? And what the heck is going on in Israel?)

There are, of course, moments in my life as a Jew that stand out in my memory. Making motzi with hundreds of other kids at camp for the first time. Realizing that my friends at a summer college program were not mostly Christian with a few Jews mixed in but rather were predominantly Jewish with a few goyim trying to decode the Yiddish words that peppered our conversation. Holding my baby girls in my arms as they received their Hebrew names.

But for the most part, my Jewish practices aren’t about the big events so much as the everyday:

For example, I close my eyes when I recite the Shema. I picture Jews around the world and through the millennia saying those same words, and even if I’m alone I feel like I’m standing shoulder to shoulder with millions.

I light Shabbat candles with my family every Friday night, and we say the blessings over the bread and wine before we eat. We don’t get to have dinner as a family every single night, and we hardly ever say motzi before meals, but those Shabbat dinners are special to me, a way of experiencing Sabbath peace together. In Mishkan T’filah (right next to the words to the song Yismechu, I think) it says, “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” So true.

The rabbi has also asked me to leave the students with a piece of advice about living a meaningful Jewish life. I think I’ll share with them this bit of wisdom from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Pray as if everything depended on God; act as if everything depended on you.”

Shabbat peace

Sophie’s religious school class devoted Saturday morning to baking challah, making challah covers and learning about other Shabbat rituals. Challah is a traditional braided bread – and something I used to prepare for our family every week back in junior high. Saturday’s class gave me a chance to see that I haven’t lost my technique!kidsandmichelle_web

The kids had a great time, as did their parents. I was especially impressed by the artwork the children came up with for their challah covers. Sophie managed to stencil the word Shabbat in Hebrew quite nicely on hers. One little boy drew his entire family and their pets.

The Sabbath has turned into another day for errands, playdates and soccer games in some ways for our family. This week, however, Sophie and I attended services Friday night and had this great experience on Saturday morning. It was such a pleasure to feel the peace of the day the way we’re really meant to as Jews. We need to make time for that more often. I know there’s a line in the prayer book we use that says something along these lines: More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people. I love that idea.

I’m posting a few photos from Sophie’s class here, but you can see the complete album on Snapfish:

http://www1.snapfish.com/thumbnailshare/AlbumID=1743685015/a=2224220_2224220/otsc=SHR/otsi=SALBlink/COBRAND_NAME=snapfish/

sophietzedakah_websophieandrachelbraid_web

A creative blessing for kids

Sophie was recently consecrated as a new pupil in our synagogue’s religious school. During the service, parents read this blessing. I found it moconsecrationwebving and absolutely appropriate for a number of occasions. I should add, too, that it’s a prayer that I could see speaking to people from many faiths, not only my own. I hope you’ll find it has something to offer you.

May we create children who will be strong enough to know when they are weak and brave enough to know when they are afraid; who will be proud and unbending in defeat and humble and gentle in victory; whose wishbones will not be where their backbones should be; children who will know that to know themselves is the foundation stone of all true knowledge.

May we rear them, not in the paths of ease and comfort, but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenges. Here let them learn to stand up in the storm; here let them learn compassion for those who fail.

May we raise children whose hearts will be clean, whose goals will be high, who will seek to master themselves before they seek to master others; who will learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep; who will reach into the future but never forget the past. And after all these are theirs, may we add, enough of a sense of humor so that they may always be serious but never take themselves too seriously; a touch of humility so that they may always remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength.