Posted by Rabbi Dan Moskovitz
Last week – I like most of you was glued to the TV and the internet watching with great concern the unfolding conflict in Gaza and Southern Israel.
The coverage at least in the states was horribly one sided and biased. It seemed on every station all I saw were images of helmet and flack vested reporters on roof tops in Gaza talking about the pounding the city was taking from the IDF and the human tragedy that was unfolding.
And it was tragic, the loss of innocent life on both sides left too many grieving parents and children. The Jewish imperative to see every human being as being created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God is to be reminded that everyone has someone who loves them and will miss them when they’re gone.
The difference of course, and it’s a distinction that is no comfort to the victim’s families on either side but is nonetheless important to make is that one side – Israel - was trying to minimize civilian casualties and the other side - Hamas - was trying to inflict them.
In Judaism we mourn the loss of every life, even when that person was a rodef a pursuer who is out to kill you. We pour out wine at seder for the Egyptian armies that drowned in the sea of reeds as the walls of water came crashing down behind us.
And yet – we are not pacifists.
Hanukkah: which our six and four year old boys will tell you starts in exactly 189 hours celebrates a military victory. In broad strokes it’s a holiday about taking up arms to take back and defend the Temple and our right to the free exercise of Judaism. It was a war of no choice – eyn brayrah we say, a war of self-defense.
The rabbis ever mindful of public opinion and the Jewish penchant for excessiveness even back then emphasized the miracle of the oil rather than the military victory.
They chose miracle over might because:
• They were wary of religious zealotry.
• Because its not good for the Jews a minority people to go around celebrating insurgent victories over ruling powers.
• The Talmud established post Hanukah that the only conflict that is truly sanctioned in a post biblical world is a war of self defense, eyn brayrah a war where you have no choice but to fight.
And this has been the standard by which the IDF has engaged in combat since the establishment of the state of Israel.
• Fight only when necessary
• Take every care to preserve human life and dignity
HOWEVER in the mixed up moral equivalencies of the Middle East Israel’s acts of self-defense are seen as aggression and the terrorists that attack it are cast in the role of freedom fighters.
It’s a horrible misrepresentation of the truth in the conflict in Gaza. And was everywhere on the news last week.
Then Anderson Cooper on CNN - no great friend of Israel held up this leaflet.
He reported incredulously – in flak vest and helmet that 24 hours ago the IDF started dropping these leaflets throughout Gaza. They were translated, this is what they said:
“Important announcement for the residents of the Gaza Strip:
For your own safety, take responsibility for yourselves and avoid being present in the vicinity of Hamas operatives and facilities and those of other terror organizations that pose a risk to your safety. Hamas is once again dragging the region to violence and bloodshed.
The IDF is determined to defend the residents of the State of Israel. This announcement is valid until quiet is restored to the region. Israel Defense Forces Command.”
Then Cooper held up another leaflet – this one YELLOW and explained that 12 hours ago the IDF dropped these leaflets on the neighborhood he was reporting from at that very moment. It read:
To the residents of of the outskirts of Shati, Al-Atatra, Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun: for your safety, you are required to evacuate your residences immediately and move towards central Gaza city via Al-Falujah, Al-Udda and Salah A-din. In the central Gaza city, you are required to stay between the roads of Salah A-din from the west, Amar Al-Muchtar from the north, Al-Nasser from the east and Al-Quds St. from the south.
AND IT GAVE THEM A MAP TO THE EXIT ROUTES
Then an hour before the bombing was to begin text messages went to every cell phone in the targeted area that said get out the bomb is coming in an hour. There is a missile launcher in this courtyard of this building on this street.
Tragically, criminally Hamas responded to these text messages on Al Quds Radio in Gaza urging listeners to ignore the IDF warnings. Here is the transcript:
Hamas Interior Ministry Spokesperson: This is all part of the psychological warfare held by the Zionist enemy… So by using this way of communication, our public radio, I address all our Palestinian brothers by saying: Please do not listen to the orders noted on these text messages, their only purpose is spreading fear and panic within our people. Stay in your homes.
Then Israel dropped non-lethal percussion bombs on the rooftops of surrounding buildings. A practice they invented called Roof Knocking – designed to convince civilians that the bombs are coming get out. Because they know Hamas tells them otherwise.
Then at the appointed hour, in the appointed area with intended pinpoint accuracy they attempted to destroy the launcher or the munitions depot or the command and control facility located in a schoolyard, apartment building our hospital parking lot.
Who fights a war like this? Who tells the terrorists when and where they will be targeted and struck?
Not because its more efficient, they could carpet bomb Gaza, the IDF has the technology. They could have sent in ground troops – they were on standby
But they didn’t – why?
• Because their war was with the missiles and the terrorists not the people of Gaza.
• Because they are Jews and for the first time since the Maccabees of Hanukkah we have an army and when conflict is necessary, when we have to take up arms to defend our homeland and our people from thousands of rockets that rain down with only 15 seconds warning even then we try to fight like menschen.
• Because of this week’s parsha: Vayishlach Yaakov malachim – “And Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to parlay with his estranged brother Esau. And hearing he was coming with an army, Jacob divided his camp and placed the women and children a safe distance AWAY.
This is the Torah of conflict. Try to protect human life on both sides. Limit collateral damage
I am proud to be a Jew for many reasons AND last week one more.
I am proud of this leaflet, and those text messages and those discerning commanders and those brave pilots. Not because of the destruction they brought on the terrorists, but because of the destruction they tried not to bring. The lives they tried to spare.
Next week is Hanukkah – tradition instructs us to place the menorah in the window of our home as an act of Jewish pride and perseverance; to show the world that we are still here. That in spite of those who designed to destroy us we survive, we thrive and Judaism endures.
This year it shines even more brightly because even when rockets rained down, even when we had no choice but to respond. When once again we had to take up arms, Vayishlach Yaakov malachim, we sent flyers and text messages and warning shots before bombs, we did everything in our power, everything possible, took strides no other army in the history of conflict has taken to preserve life on both sides.
• I’m proud of this menorah.
• I am proud of this leaflet.
• I am proud of our tradition.
• I am proud that for three thousand years and counting we continue to demonstrate the importance of the difference between MIGHT and MIRACLE. That even when you have no choice but to fight, you can still choose how.
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September 15, 2012 | 8:40 am
Posted by Rabbi Dan Moskovitz
Last week my congregation Temple Judea released a High Holy Day video, a parody of a popular song we called, "Call Your Zeyde". The video was a hit, with more than 27,000 views as of this morning, it has been reposted by the Reform Movement, the Jewish Telegraph Agency and was featured on the front page of The Daily News.
In response to the video we recieved emails from every corner of the Jewish world. One orthodox Jew wrote, “even though we don’t agree about much in Judaism we can certainly agree to call our grandparents on Rosh Hashanah.” That’s a pretty low bar of agreement I will admit but it’s a start and I’ll take it in the spirit it was offered. Besides, agreements come as the result of dialog, and anybody with whom you can have a dialog can be communicated with in the future!
Rabbis and Cantors who saw the video, wrote to say that it inspired them to make their own with their congregations. And most wondefully I received a note from an elderly Jew in Florida who said his grandchildren called him out of the blue to play the video and wish him Happy New Year – he says he hadn’t heard from them in two months.
Who would have thought our little YouTube would have such a big impact on so many? On so many THOUSANDS? Well I hoped it would but how can you know for sure if people will like what you like?
And then an amateurish hate-filled YouTube titled “Innocence of Muslims” was translated into Arabic and the Middle East erupted in violence once again. Western diplomatic missions are under siege, our Ambassador to Libya and members of his staff are murdered and US influence in a region that has vital economic and security interests for the US and Israel is further eroded.
Where our film was created to make fun and bring a little laughter to the Jewish world in the New Year – this film was clearly designed to breed hatred. Created by a network of right-wing Christians with a history of animosity directed toward Muslims it was intended to debase and debunk Islam to an English speaking Christian audience. Then it was translated into Arabic, and while we don’t know who translated it their purpose is clear, to demean and enrage the Arab world.
You can’t always know what people will like or find funny – but you can usually tell with 100% accuracy what they will find offensive.
I would say that the people who made this film should know better, but they knew exactly what they were doing, I think they even got what they wanted and more. They showed Fundamentalist Arab Radicals to be just that: Fundamentalist Arab Radicals. They uncovered seething Anti-American sentiments is a region where we have been engaged in overt and covert warfare for more than a decade. And they laid bare the weakness of US influence over newly installed revolutionary Islamic regimes in countries where we previously supported the same dictators the revolutionaries ousted at the point of a gun.
None of this is new or should be a surprise. Yes elements of the Arab world want to destroy America and Israel. They shout ‘Death to America’ and ‘Death to Israel’ and I take them at their word. What I don’t understand, what frustrates me, angers me, what I find treasonous is why these film makers are helping the enemies of America and Israel achieve their goal?
And before you throw up the hand of Free Speech – let’s talk about that.
"Free speech is an integral part of a free society. Yet, like all freedoms, it requires responsibility and self-discipline in its exercise. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his famous Supreme Court opinion, declared that freedom of speech does not allow one to shout "fire" in a crowded theater where no fire exists. Thus, even this most free of all our freedoms, the right to say what we wish, must be subject to some limitations in order for society to function." (Rabbi Berel Wein, jlaw.com)
Judaism expects even more of us. Judaism is focused on obligations not rights. Which is why the Torah and rabbinic law do not provide nearly the protections of free speech that are afforded in the US Constitution. Call it another challenge of being The Chosen People, but we are held, as we often are - to an even higher standard when it comes to what we say.
Speech is deemed the most powerful force in the Torah. With speech God created the world, with speech (and a few plagues) Moses freed the slaves, with speech God commanded the Ten Commandments. Speech and its appropriate use is a big deal in Judaism.
The limitations on speech fall under the category of Lashon Hara, evil speech. In the Torah lashon hara, is the reason Miriam is exiled from the community, and one of the reasons Moses is not allowed to enter the biblical land of Israel. (Yes he hit the rock, but before he did that he called the people rebels and some commentators say it was that sin for which he was punished.)
The Talmudic rabbis go as far as to say that slander, tale bearing, and evil talk are worse than the three cardinal sins of murder, immorality, and idolatry. Of one who indulges in lashon hara they say that he denies the existence of God, and that the Almighty declares “I and he cannot live in the same world” (Babylonian Talmud Arakhin 15b).
Alan Dershowitz writing an Op-Ed piece for Haaretz, correctly cautions:
“Religious fanatics who are easily offended by those outside of their religion who violate the rules of their religion cannot serve as censors in democratic societies. The threat or fear of violence should not become an excuse or justification for restricting freedom of speech.”
And I agree with him – we should not allow the fear of violence to censor speech. Were that the case Martin Luther King Jr. would never have had a dream. Susan B Anthony would never have demanded the vote, and, and, and …
But there is a world of difference between those acts of valedictory courage and the patently stupid and blatantly offensive words and images of this YouTube film. By the Jewish standard of l’shon hara there is no excuse for their actions. As a Jew you cannot insult another person. You can speak truth to power, you can protest and petition; you can even take up arms to defend a just cause. But you can’t just go around calling people names, that’s just not allowed.
But Jewish Law aside, to use the first amendment to defend and protect the verbal equivalent of intentionally kicking a hornets nest does a disservice to the principle that so many have risked their lives to preserve.
I do not excuse the acts of violence perpetrated by the Arab Street on our diplomats or our embassies. Similarly I do not excuse, defend or protect the act of verbal violence perpetrated against them by this film. Both are wrong, both will only lead to more bloodshed, more violence. Neither makes America or Israel safer.
Dershowitz concludes his article with the following:
“Individuals have the right to pick and choose which expressions to condemn, which to praise and which to say nothing about.“
I condemn them both, the video and the riots. I blame them both, the video and the riots. And I understand them both, the video and the riots. They have reasons to hate us and we have reasons to hate them. But not the reasons in the YouTube video..
So, we learn yet again two lessons we already knew: words can do terrible harm and mindless violence still persists in this world. With every word we speak, with every post on Twitter or Facebook or YouTube we each constantly make choices about what we will say or won’t say. The Torah requires that we take these choices seriously. Everyone, EVERYONE knows that continuing this cycle of violence will never ultimately end in a more peaceful world. We have a way to stop violence, an easy way, by not encouraging it, and by instead doing what we here at Temple Judea so recently demonstrated in our video - using words to bring people together not pull them a part.
And then let's take the message of our little video to its logical conclusion. Let’s talk to each other. Let’s use our freedom of speech to speak out against the violence of words and the violence of deeds. And then maybe everyone can start to listen.
May 8, 2012 | 4:26 pm
Posted by Rabbi Dan Moskovitz
A dozen years ago I skimmed Steve Covey’s book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. I am not sure that skimming it made me more effective than reading it but I skimmed it none the less. Twelve years later one story still resonates with me from Covey’s work, I reflect on it probably once a week in my rabbinate and its insight continues to inform my work with people. Covey tells the story of observing a father on a quiet subway car. The man’s children were running wild amongst the quiet passengers and causing quite a disturbance. Everyone is disturbed by the behavior and the father appears oblivious to what is taking place. Covey turns the father and says, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more.” The father stirs from his oblivion, turns to Covey and responds, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.’
Covey is left speechless as all of his assumptions are torn asunder, and uses the incident to explain the power of paradigm shifts, the values check that emerges when we uncover a back story we never considered, when we discover the why behind the actions of others.
A similar incident happens in this week’s parsha, Emor. In Leviticus 24:10 we read of a man born to an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father. The young man attempts to set his camp among his mother’s ancestral tribe and is rejected on the grounds that one must camp by the tribe of their father. The young man’s father is Egyptian, he has no place to camp. A fight breaks out between him and an Israelite member of the tribe and in the course of the fight he blasphemy’s God’s name. For this sin the young man is brought to Moses and held in custody until God ordains that he be stoned to death for the sin of blasphemy.
As severe as the judgement may appear to our modern sensibilities, it is juxtaposed with the passage about and eye for an eye and is not out of place with other biblical decrees. But a peculiar fact is mentioned in the text that causes many to question this assumption.
While we never learn the name of the blasphemer, the text does explicitly reveal his mother’s name; Shelomith bat Divri. She is the only woman mentioned by name in the entire book of Leviticus. Why? What bearing does his mother have on his actions? A close reading of the text reminds us we have met this woman before. She is the wife of the Hebrew foreman, who is beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster so severely that Moses takes matters into his own hands and kills the taskmaster in cold blood (Ex. 2:11).
Why was the taskmaster beating Shelomith’s husband? Because earlier that day he raped Shelomith and the husband saw it - trying to cover his tracks the taskmaster attempted to work him to death. The blasphemer was the issue of that union. (Ex Rab 1:28, Lev Rab 32:4)
Paradigm shift! With this as back story perhaps we understand why this young man curses G-d when he is kicked out of the camp? We can feel his rage and frustration. We can hear him pleading “Have you no room for me within the community of the Jewish people? After what my mother went through, after all the teasing and contempt I have experienced for something I had no control over? I was raised by my mother, (and step-father) - never knew my birth father - killed the day I was conceived. Where do I belong if not among this people, my people, the only family and faith I have ever known.”
For me the story and its harsh resolution is a cautionary tale. I have found that most people do not act indiscriminately, there is usually a reason, often a good reason for every action and reaction. Understanding those reasons, the back story helps me to determine my response. I can’t help but wonder how this whole series of events would have been different if somewhere along the way someone stopped and simply asked why?
March 23, 2012 | 6:45 pm
Posted by Rabbi Dan Moskovitz
People often tell me they are uncomfortable with religion. You may think it odd to tell that to a rabbi but it happens all the time, usually in the form of an apology, though they have nothing to apologize for, certainly not to me. They then continue and explain, that while they are not religious they do consider themselves spiritual.
Such a dichotomy begs the question of course, what is the difference between the two, between being religious and being spiritual?
The answer is found in this book, in the book of Leviticus, a book literally overflowing with religious practice. Indeed gallons of blood and whole herds of animals are spilled and sacrificed in the name of religion in the book of Leviticus – nothing could seem farther from spirituality than these ancient rites.
And yet our rabbis teach that Leviticus is the MOST spiritual book of the entire Torah. In fact so important are its teachings for living a spiritual life that tradition holds that when we begin teaching a child Torah we start with this book. Not the stories of Genesis or Moses and the Exodus but with sacrifices. WHY?
Because sacrifice is not religious ritual, it is sacred communication, it is about having a relationship with God, and a relationship with God is spirituality.
In this week’s Torah portion God says to Moses, “When a person sins by stealing, cheating or lying they not only sin against their fellow they sin against me.” In the Talmud Rabbi Akiva asks, how is a sin against a person also a sin against God, presumably the person stole from or cheated his neighbor not God – how possibly could such an action involve God?
Then as all good rabbis do, Rabbi Akiva answers his own question by explaining that when a person loans a friend money or an object and does not return it, he sins not only against the person he stole from but also the Third Party that witnesses everything; the ever watchful eye of God. Deny the loan or the theft and you deny that God saw what you did as well as your fellow.
The Torah text continues that the offender must first restore the stolen item, the broken pledge – with interest no less - THEN he makes a sacrifice to God to repair that relationship as well.
Spirituality is to live as though God sees and hears everything and then to act accordingly. God, G-O-D is as one teacher described Good Orderly Direction.
Leviticus teaches how we treat others is a direct measure of our faith and our faith must always be made manifest in how we act in the world. The challenge is to remember that there is a Third Party to any human interaction or relationship, one who urges us to be our best selves at all times, at the office, at home, between friends. This challenge has its own reward as well because every interaction with another can also become a meeting place between us and God.
March 21, 2012 | 10:44 am
Posted by Rabbi Dan Moskovitz
A few weeks ago the Wall Street Journal ran a cover story in their Week in Review section about how the decline of religion in the United States has contributed to a decline in community. The article written by Alain de Botton made the point that one of the great losses of our modern society is a sense of community. That we have replaced neighborliness with a ruthless self interest, that we pursue contact with each other for primarily individualistic ends, financial gain, social advancement, romantic love.
Botton sees a correlation between this aggressive individualism and the decline of communal religious experience. He sees a return to communal religious life as the antidote to these societal ills, a response to the unmitigated individualism that is undermining our communities. In the words of noted sociologist Robert Putnam, “Too many people are bowling alone.” Puttman and Botton both make the case that when we withdraw in to ever smaller and more narrow social circles we become strangers to one another this then leads to a deficit of deep relationships and social capital that the more socially connected generations before us relied upon to meet life’s challenges and celebrate life’s joys.
Take for example the typical secular Friday night ritual going to dinner and a movie – a microcosm of how isolated we have become from each other. A few years ago my wife and I found ourselves without kids and me off the bima on a Friday night. We did something we have honestly never done before or since in our marriage, we went to a movie on a Friday night. I know shocking, radical – Friday for us is family night, its either shul or Shabbat dinner, sometimes both. But that Friday evening we entered the other sacred space in America, we went to the mall. The whole world was there, all having the same experience – and yet everyone was essentially alone and isolated from each other. Two observations:
Juxtapose that with what we do in synagogue on shabbat, the other Friday night experience. We come in alone or in couples but our experience is not isolated, rather it is interdependent. What happens in shul what is created there exists in large measure because of the expectations we bring to the place. The invitation to greet with each other with “Shabbat Shalom” is an invitation to go deeper than just “hi how are you?”, the point of the exchange is to connect with those around you. If there was a dinner before or after services it would be the furthest experience from that of going to a restaurant. The impetus, indeed the mitzvah is to reach across the table to share the meal with others, to make friends of strangers or acquaintances.
Imagine for a moment if that was the how a restaurant worked, you made your reservations, then they sat you with total strangers and encouraged you to engage in conversation. That’s what we do here at synagogue. The prayer experience itself is not like a movie or a concert or a play. Though we struggle with that because it is maybe what is more familiar to us – the idea is that it is collaborative that the ‘audience’ (to use the metaphor) is also the actor. Prayer comes from you and from the bima and God and holiness is found in the middle, in between.
In prayer we speak in the third person plural, we pray for this, we acknowledge that. We want healing, we want security, we yearn for peace, we crave acceptance of our prayers and supplications – together/collectively. This is the great contribution of religion and in particular the synagogue to our society – it helps us transform strangers into friends. As Botton points out religion serves two central needs that secular society has not been able to meet with any particular skill.
In his words, “Religion is a collection of occasionally ingenious concepts that attempt to assuage the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life.” I would add, religion exists to bring people together for sacred purpose – to connect and direct us toward greater ends, through honorable means.
January 20, 2012 | 7:55 am
Posted by Rabbi Dan Moskovitz
There was a time, not so long ago where the thought of a Jewish Chief of Staff to the President of the United States would have been a distant pipe dream for our community, or have confronted the ‘no room at the inn’ reality of The Gentlemen’s Agreement era. But not anymore, its cool to be Jewish today (or at least cooler). As has been widely reported Jack Lew becomes the fourth MOT (Member of the Tribe) to serve in this high post. Ken Duberstein was the first MOT to serve at Chief of Staff under President Reagan. Followed by Josh Bolton under President George W. Bush and of course Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first Chief of Staff.
Much has been made about the fact that Lew is a modern orthodox observant Jew and the question has come up, how will he observe the sabbath while performing the 24/7/365 duties of Chief of Staff to the President of the United States? While the question is interesting in a Sandy Koufax not pitching on Yom Kippur kinda of way, what is more telling is the bright light it shines on shabbat observance in our modern world.
The issue is not what Jack Lew will do from 18 minutes Before Sunset Friday to Three Starts in the Sky on Saturday, but what do we do during that time? Ok so maybe the Chief of Staff will have to make some accommodations, but what’s our excuse? As Judith Shulevitz’ New York Times best selling book The Sabbath World made clear last year, we need a sabbath in our modern lives perhaps now more than ever. As a progressive Jew I embrace the sanctity of shabbat, even if it does not quite fit halachic distinctions. For me shabbat is zman kodesh (sacred time) and that is defined by time that is separated and elevated from everything else I do during the rest of the week. So on shabbat I don’t do email - because I do it all week. I try to be active and outside in nature to appreciate God’s blessing of a body and natural world. I try to spend time with my family and be fully present when I do. I call my parents, and as a Jew who finds spiritual renewal and growth in prayer I go to shul.
Like Mr Lew I too sometimes work on shabbat, as a Rabbi often the spiritual needs of my community supersede my own, where I may want a shabbas nap, others have an afternoon Bar Mitzvah, or shabbat dinner is sometimes rushed as I head off to shul to lead services instead of lingering with my family (or guests). But I imagine like Mr Lew, I accept that trade off on two conditions. (1) What I am doing is important and valuable to others and would find favor in G-d’s eyes, and (2) it truly is a trade off. I am aware when my shabbas is not as I intended it and accept that as the exception not the rule. The point being that you have to have a rule, boundaries to know when you have gone beyond them. Tonight as Jack Lew celebrates Shabbat as Chief of Staff at home or in the Situation Room, my sense is that whatever he is doing will be important and valuable, worthy of G-d blessing - my suggestion is that we make sure we are always be able to say the same about our own sabbath observance.
July 1, 2011 | 6:10 pm
Posted by Rabbi Dan Moskovitz
There is a company in Texas that for a fee of $500 will allow you to go back to kindergarten for a day. For $500 you can wear mismatched socks, finger paint, play with blocks, drink apple juice, eat graham crackers and have nap time. They have a waiting list 3 months long.
Every summer I do the Jewish equivalent of this act of regression, I spend a week at a Jewish summer camp as the rabbi in residence. Over the last three years that camp has been here in LA at Camp Alonim in Simi Valley. Where this year hundreds of Jewish kids are spending the summer swimming, riding horses, playing gaga, having song sessions after lunch, Israeli dance late into the night, wearing white on Shabbat and acting out the weekly torah portion in skits and conversations that can only happen in a sanctuary made of trees and windows open to the sky.
If you can’t tell I love camp. I am a rabbi because of my Jewish summer camp experiences as a teenager. Just look at a Jewish summer camper, they are tan, they are filled with energy, most days they are covered in paint or dirt, or both and most of all they are experiencing Judaism in a way that is making a lasting and profound impact on their lives – they are experiencing it through a joy filled community of peers.
But the lessons of camp, its transformative impact and value is not just for kids, its for grownup too. Through the eyes of Jewish summer campers we can see that they are loving Judaism right now, they are connected to each other and to a power in their life, be it God, community, Jewish history, practice or culture that is greater than they knew before.
So what’s the secret, what is it about camp that is so helpful and inspiring for the Jewish experience? What can we learn from these kids that can teach us as adult how better to appreciate the gift of our Jewish identity? (Please share your answer in the comments field below)
There are some many things I want to highlight just three lessons that we can take from camp and apply in our own homes and Jewish lives.
Shabbat is different time, its special time. At camp on Shabbat the food is better, we clean ourselves up, we dress in white, we sit with our friends (old and new), we take our time at the meal, we sing songs and dance afterwards. We sleep in on Saturday morning, we connect with nature, we have a long period of time to relax or take advantage of the things we didn’t get to do during the week, and we end Shabbat with a ritual that truly marks the time as different from the week that lies ahead. We can do this in our homes as well, we can make Shabbat, we can make time for Shabbat, we can tell the world it has to wait, this time, our family comes first.
Prayer at camp is a collaborative experience; it doesn’t exist unless you help create it. As a rabbi at camp on Shabbat I tell a story, some kid or kids with a guitar plays music but the campers own the service, they chose the prayers, the melodies, the readings, the setting. We need to do more of this in our congregations. Yes gone are the days where to sit in shul meant to sit on your hands stark still. Indeed now in synagogue we sing along, we clap, but we cannot stop there we need to help create, to the shape the experience, to own it. Because prayer is not the sole responsibility of the rabbi or the cantor. In Judaism it takes a community to truly pray, so we all have to contribute and not just our voices, but our yearnings and our desires, we must make plain what we need from this service and then together let us capture it.
Camp runs on Jewish time. No I don’t mean everything is 15 minutes late. What I mean is that you don’t have to go to a certain place to feel Jewish, its in the air, its in the food, its in the names of buildings, the types of activities. Judaism is a consistent thread that runs throughout your day. From blessings in the morning and over meals, to the art projects and stories shared around the camp fire. Of course it is hard to do in the real world with so many things competing for our attention and energy. But if we continue to treat Jewish faith and practice as something kept under glass, break only in case of emergency or family crisis or lifecycle event we’ll never truly learn how to use it, let alone own it for ourselves.
There is much more that camp can teach us about the joys of Judaism, but lets start there, with purposeful Shabbat, with collaborative prayer and with an embrace of Jewish ritual every day not just now and then.
You can’t spend the rest of your life in kindergarten (though my mother tells me I did spend two years – apparently I failed scissors) and camp is only for a few months of the summer. But we can each of us, kids and grownups bring a little bit of camp into our daily lives, sprinkle it around your family and throughout your Jewish identity, and see what grows there – your kids will thank you and you’ll thank yourself too.
June 18, 2011 | 4:11 pm
Posted by Rabbi Dan Moskovitz
This Shabbat marks my first full week back in my congregation since the end of my three month sabbatical. I am grateful for the time that I had to study, reflect, rest and rejuvenate. I took the three months to travel around the country visiting other congregations and communities, meeting with clergy, lay people and professional staff. I observed some of the most innovative and forward thinking congregations not only in the Jewish community but amongst Mormon and Evangelical Christian congregations as well. For those interested the lessons and observations from my sabbatical studies can be found at www.rabbidanmoskovitz.com (I may repost some of them here at a later date as I begin to formulate meta observations and suggestions).
As I return to the day to day life of serving my congregation I am struggling against the muscle memory of not wanting to just do things the way I have done them for the past 12 years in the rabbinate. The text that keeps coming to mind is from Pirkei Avot Chapter 2, “Rabbi Shimon says: c’she’atah mitpalel, al ta’as tefilat’cha keva – Rabbi Shimon says, when you pray, don’t make your prayer keva, fixed (routine). The alternative being Kavanah to perform your actions with a purposeful, considered intention. I have tried throughout my spiritual life to be guided by this principle, and find it even more important now after sabbatical.
It is so easy for each of us (not just rabbis and not just with prayer) to slip in to the comfort zone of ‘that’s how I have always done it’. The challenge of course is to continue to learn, grow and reinvent ourselves. We are encouraged to do this by our tradition because to just rely on our old tired but true ways is to deny that thing makes us uniquely human and not machines. A machine can perform the same repetitive task time and again, never tire, and never make a mistake. In fact if you ask a machine to do something that is is not constructed or trained to do, that is often when the machine breaks down. With people it is of course just the opposite - we are most alive when we push ourselves to try and do the unfamiliar.
In my brief week back at the congregation I have tried to make a conscious effort to do things differently and it has been both fun and a bit unsettling. Its fun because I am trying out some of the new insights and techniques I discovered during my studies. My conversations with b’nai mitzvah students are different, the format of my weekly Torah study is evolving, I’m trying some new things in worship, and trying very hard to use the phone and technology in a way that I don’t feel enslaved to it. I’m even using some new jokes on the bimah - you must know its not easy for a rabbi to give up a tried and true good one liner. Its only been seven days, but so far the intentionality of trying to be unpredictable to myself has been invigorating.
So lesson one, on my first week back is don’t go back to how it was, even if the old ways were pretty good. Honor the change, the growth we experience as human beings when we make a routine out of not doing things routinely.