Thursday, July 23, 2015

"Pour out my heart like water" – thoughts for Tisha b’Av 5775

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Sitting here in Toronto, the big difference between Israel and the world I grew up in is obvious.  I heard this in a shiur yesterday from Rabbanit Chana Henkin, who said, "There's nothing like water to emphasize the difference between inside and outside Israel."

Toronto, in particular, is a deliciously watery place.  Perched on the brink of Lake Ontario, nestled between two (kinda, used-to-be) mighty rivers. 

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The water here makes me happy.  Sort of.

But you know where else had a lot of water?

Babylon.  (Again, this is not my idea, it’s Rabbanit Henkin’s; I just wrote it down.)

Friday, July 10, 2015

Why Jewish reincarnation matters (even if you don’t believe in reincarnation) - a dvar Torah for Parshas Pinchas

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Do you know what Judaism teaches about reincarnation? Many people are surprised to hear that this is even part of our worldview.

I read on Chabad.org that the reason we aren’t aware of previous incarnations is because if we were, we wouldn’t be able to have complete free will.

Because of this, learning what Judaism teaches about reincarnation might seem useless, since it has no practical benefit. Also, there’s an idea that these mystical concepts can easily be misunderstood, or carried to misleading conclusions. That, it said, was “why this and similar subjects are only hinted at in scripture.”

So what does this all have to do with this week’s parsha?

Everything. Because those hints are there, once you start looking for them.

This week’s parsha starts with a throwback to last week’s parsha. The parsha is actually named after a guy who did a really brave but slightly shocking thing in last week’s parsha. His name is Pinchas, and he killed a man named Zimri.

 

Who the heck are these people?

Pinchas appears first, and the parsha is named after him. He was the son of Eleazar, the son of Aharon who became kohein gadol (high priest) in last week’s parsha. Aharon, of course, was a descendent of the tribe of Levi.

The man he killed was Zimri, the son of Salu, and he was from the tribe of Shimon. In fact, to be entirely accurate, he was the leader of the tribe of Shimon. A pretty important guy.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Parshas Chukas: Why you need darkness to feel the light

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Have you ever wondered what it's like to be blind?

Picture yourself in a world of darkness, groping around, not knowing where - or what - anything is. 

Last month, I got to go to the Dialogue in the Dark exhibit at the Israel Children's Museum in Holon.  You're immersed in a darkness so intense you can't see even the outlines of the other people in the room.

Our blind superhero

You're lost in a hopeless, unsolvable maze.  Are you near a wall, a door?  Are you about to bump into something?  Your only hope is to trust in the skills of your guide, an all-seeing miracle worker who can somehow navigate her way through total darkness.

Our guide was Michal.  Michal is blind, but there, in the dark, she was strong.  She knew her way around better than the back of her hand.  She memorized our names and called them out throughout the tour to make sure we didn't get lost.  She warned us about obstacles and coached us to "look" around ourselves with fingers and hands.

In the dark, Michal was strong, and we were fully dependent on her to get out of the maze alive - or at least, within the promised hour.

After the one-hour tour, we finally "met" Michal in the light.  She was shorter than most of us had pictured.  Smaller, too.  In the dark, she'd seemed like a superhero, but there in the light, she was just a little blind woman with a cane.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Parshas Shlach: Facebook & the meraglim, what are you hiding?

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Maybe you think this is the age of “let it all hang out,” when Google rules, your friends post their snacks on Facebook, and there are no secrets left in the world.

Believe me, there are still plenty of secrets. And this bold new world may have more in common with the world of the Torah than we’d like to believe, as this week’s parsha, Shlach, shows us.

That’s because what we share on Facebook and other social media is only a redacted version of our true selves. 

This isn’t a bad thing, but we tend to forget.  And then, we envy other people’s lives, just the way the Aseres Hadibros tell us we shouldn’t. 

If you’ve ever looked at a friend’s Facebook status and wished that was your life, you know what I’m talking about.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Where I disagree

NOTE: One year after my brother Eli's death in 2014, I published a book about the intertwining of our lives and his struggle with schizophrenia. This post and many other writings are included, in slightly different form, in that book.
Please wait until the ride has come to a full and complete stop is now available in print and Kindle editions.


Through laughter and tears, I invite you to come share my final journey with my brother.
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In light of the school shooting on Friday in Connecticut, a mother named Liza Long has released a heartfelt article saying, “I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza's [Friday’s shooter’s] mother. I am Dylan Klebold's and Eric Harris's mother. I am Jason Holmes's mother. I am Jared Loughner's mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho's mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it's easy to talk about guns. But it's time to talk about mental illness.”

She says something I agree with wholeheartedly:  “it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people.”  Canada, too.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Ancient Auction Secret: If Chinese auctions are racist, why do Jews love them so much?


Ah, Jews, Jews, Jews, Jews.  You sure do love your Chinese auctions, don’t you?

It seems that even in an era of political correctness, within certain circles, this term just will not die.
And frankly, I’m mortified.

I’m not Chinese, but I have family who is Chinese.  Some are Korean, as well.  I guess this makes us more ethnically diverse than many Jews, but I suspect most Jewish families are moving in this direction.  Still.  Even if we don’t know a single Chinese person, we should still stop calling it that.

First of all… is it actually racist to call it a Chinese auction?

I figured I’d let Chinese people decide.  But when I turned to Google to find out how Chinese people feel about Chinese auctions, what I found was mostly… nothing.  Silence. 

I did find some debate (presumably among non-Chinese people) over whether it was too far in the direction of political correctness to refer to these as a “silent auction” or (as in some parts of the States) a “tricky tray.”  (Okay, that’s just weird.)

One guy reacted by saying, “You say something ‘Politically Incorrect’ and people look at you in horror as though you just killed a kitten.”

However, another person on the same thread said, “the term is tied up with a lot of other negative characterizations of Asian culture as being mystical in contrast to Western culture being rational.”

That’s my understanding as well – that Chinese people (and Asians in general) were assumed to be sneaky characters, always hiding something.  Hence the racist “ancient Chinese secret” TV commercial (see the video below).

This discussion on a Jewish site yielded absolutely no philosophical depth whatsoever.  When asked if it was racist, the first guy just said, “No.”  Another volleyed back by asking if a Dutch Auction is racist.  (I had never heard of this, but apparently, it’s mainly an investment thing.)

Here’s the thing.

While “Chinese Auctions” may have once been common, today, many English speakers outside the religious Jewish community don’t even know what these are.  That’s because almost everybody calls them something else these days.  Meaningless political correctness or not, they have moved on and nobody really minds all that much.