Thursday, February 28, 2013


I unplug to....

Do you ever wish you could unplug?
To take a vacation from your smart phone, from Facebook, from email?
Or perhaps would you like someone you love to unplug?
            To look you in the eye when you are talking, to share a meal without distraction, to take a walk together?

For 25 hours, tomorrow, March 1 through March 2, join the National Day of Unplugging.

Here's an opportunity to think about what might do if you turned off the electronics.
What would you see and hear? Who might you connect to face to face?

In this week's Torah portion, we read of Moses' encounter with God panim el panim, face to face. Martin Buber taught that when we engage deeply with another human being, we experience an "I-Thou" moment, a godly connection that transcends our utilitarian approach to relationships. Instead of approaching someone with a request, or a demand, or as the object of our emotions (desire, envy, ridicule, pride), enter into relationship.

The National Day of Unplugging coincides with Shabbat. Think of this as an experiment, rather than a life-commitment. Try to start at sunset on Friday and continue until sunset. If you need more ideas, check out "The Sabbath Manifesto"

At HBT, our Friday night service this week will support the idea of unplugging, as we take a trip to 17th century Italy with the choral music of Jewish composer Salomone Rossi. Rossi's music bridged the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and the service he wrote is based on the unique Italian rite of Shabbat liturgy. And the nine talented musicians who will perform the service will also be unplugged. (no microphones!)

And if you like unplugging, you also have our congregational retreat to look forward to in May. More about unplugging another time. Right now, I'm turning off my computer. Feel free to come and talk-face to face!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Muppet Purim Parody

The Book of Esther does not contain the name of God. Quite unusual for a biblical book. Some say God is "hidden" in the coincidences (miracles?) of the story. Or maybe, there's just a....

(Sung to “The Rainbow Connection”

Why are there so many
Ways to say God’s name
But none in this Purim guide?
Is God a vision
or only illusion?
and does God have something to hide?
So we've been told
and some choose to believe it
But I know they're wrong
wait and see.

Someday we'll find it
The Godly Connection
The scholars, the mystics and me

Who said that every prayer
Would be heard and answered
When wished on the morning Shema
Somebody thought of that
and someone believed it
and look what it's done so far.
What's so inspiring
that keeps us inquiring
And what do we think we should be?

Someday we'll find it
That Godly Connection
The scholars, the mystics and me

All of us under its spell
I know that it’s probably magic…

Have you seen a burning bush
and have you heard voices?
I've heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound
That called to young Moses?
The Voice might be One and the same.
I've heard it too many times to ignore it
It’s saying that we’re all ho-ly.

Someday we'll find it
The Godly Connection
The scholars, the mystics and me

Yai de-di dai de-di dai
Ya dai de-di dai dai dai dai…

Thursday, February 21, 2013

What Makes Purim So Important?

To paraphrase orange-juice purveyor and notorious 1980's homophobe Anita Bryant:
a year without Purim is like a year without sunshine.

What makes Purim so important?

Purim proves that God has a sense of humor.
So if we're to imitate God, or be godly, then it's a holy act to laugh and to make others laugh too.

Purim is an adult holiday masquerading as a children's party. The story itself is a farce pretending to be one of the more serious and historical books of the Bible. Even the name of the holiday, Purim, which means "lots," as in "lottery," identifies this holiday with the arbitrary wins and losses of our lives.

The festivities surrounding Purim are the most outlandish and whimsical of the Jewish calendar. Most Jews associate Purim with costumes and carnivals, graggers (noisemakers) and hamantashen (three-cornered cookies with fillings) with great appeal to children. But it would be wrong to dismiss Purim as a holiday for children only. Whether considering the deeper messages of the Megillah (the scroll containing the Book of Esther) or joining in the self-mocking atmosphere of a Purim shpiel, adults deserve to celebrate and enjoy Purim.

Although a serious reading of the story might lead one to see Purim as a holiday of revenge, when one reads the story of Esther as a comedy it has a more joyous, self-mocking message. The story is a kind of Jewish communal fantasy blown out of proportion. For Jews who lived under oppression and fear, or who experienced brutality and exile, the Book of Esther and the Purim holiday provided comic relief. The tables are turned on our enemies several times during the story, some more humorous than others. In fact, the book acknowledges this theme of reversals explicitly (Chapter 9, verse 1):

On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month (that is, the month of Adar) when the king's command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened (v'nahafokh hu), and the Jews got their enemies in their power.

The Book of Esther provides a fantasy view of a topsy-turvy world, where the Jews not only escape from their would-be destroyers, but turn the tables on their enemies. The reversals are taken to extremes when Haman is impaled on the stake that he had erected for Mordecai. This comeuppance reinforces the comic scene earlier in the tale, when Haman leads Mordecai on the horse in the manner that Haman expected to be honored himself (6:7-10). When Haman is gone, Mordecai wears his adversary's robes (1:6 and 8:15) and puts on the king's ring, taking Haman's place as chief advisor.

One of the main themes of the megillah is that things are not always what they seem. This book mocks us in our piety and runs roughshod over our exalted values. Even in their distress, neither Mordecai nor Esther pray! In fact, God's name does not appear in the Book of Esther even once.

King Ahasuerus, often described as a fool, is in actuality a hedonist. He is either feasting or drinking in nearly every chapter of the story (See Esther 1:3, 2:18, 3:15, 5:6, 6:14, 7:1). And the sexual innuendos are worth a closer look as well. The book opens with a feast that takes place over 180 days (1:4) and is followed by seven more days of feasting (and drinking). Esther appears to be a model of piety in contrast, though a thoughtful reader might ask, "What's a nice Jewish girl doing in a palace like this?"

With its unusually raucous celebration, Purim gives us permission to laugh at ourselves and at our history and to behave in ways that would be discouraged the rest of the year.

So, come snow or rain or heat or gloom of night, nothing will stay these revelers from the swift consumption of their appointed rounds.

In other words, come in costume to hear the megillah read this Saturday night and BYOB for the game night afterward!

(Rabbi Penzner's thoughts on Purim will be included in the forthcoming volume of A Guide to Jewish Practice, Volume 2, to be published by the Reconstructionist Press in the fall.)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Engaging Israel

Last summer, an invitation in our weekly email bulletin to enroll in a course called "Engaging Israel" created more buzz than anything I've ever posted here. Engaging Israel is the project of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, a pluralistic think tank where I have had the privilege to study and argue Jewish texts and ideas with rabbis from across the spectrum.

With the goal of "creating a new narrative regarding the significance of Israel for Jewish life," we launched the course in the fall with twenty-six individuals. Most attended the full course of nine sessions on Sunday evenings, despite the difficult topics, the discomfort of disagreement among us, and the constant challenge to question our own assumptions.

This past Sunday night, following the blizzard, a dozen hardy individuals showed up for our final class. Coincidentally, that same day, the founder of the Hartman Institute, Rabbi David Hartman, a giant of our generation, passed away in Jerusalem. We dedicated our final session to his memory.

As the Hartman Institute described him on their website:

Rabbi Professor David Hartman, one of the great Jewish philosophers of his generation and the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute, passed away Feb. 10, 2013, at 81. Rabbi Hartman was one of the leaders of liberal Orthodoxy, and his philosophy influenced tens of thousands of Jews in Israel and around the world 

Each week, we were exposed to a number of Hartman Institute scholars, most prominently, David Hartman's son, Rabbi Donniel Hartman. Sadly, we were never able to experience the authenticity and brilliance of Reb David himself. To get a sense of his greatness, his deep love of people and his fiery pursuit of truth and justice, I recommend reading some of the tributes in The Times of Israel.

What made this course different, and was particularly appealing to many of the participants, was the focus on Jewish values rather than on political opinions. The learning that took place helped many to discover teachings that they had not realized were found in Jewish thought. The intense focus on values created a foundation for conversation in which we could all share, a focus that fostered unity and attentive listening rather than division and conflict.

One value that Engaging Israel stressed in nearly every class was the importance of listening to divergent opinions. Rabbi David Hartman was known to say:
"You don't always have to agree with what the other side says, but you always have to try to understand them and why they are saying what they are saying."

This message formed the basis for our class, enlivened the discussion, and was noted by many at the final session as one of the most significant aspects of the course. One participant said:

"Though everyone is different, we can envision studying with people who are different."

By "people who are different," we did not just mean people in the room. Of course, it could mean others who are not Jews, including those we consider our enemies. But even more startling, "people who are different" could include other Jews with whom we might otherwise think we have nothing in common, Jews outside our community and outside our comfort zone. That was an eye-opening realization for some.

All of this, I would argue, is part of Rabbi David Hartman's legacy. As a seeker of truth and at the same time, an ardent lover of people, his vision was one of vibrant, even heated, yet respectful debate. After all, as the rabbis taught about the ongoing debates between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai, elu v'elu divrei Elohim chayim - each one speaks the words of the living God. Who is right or who is wrong is not the question. What is truth is the central question, a question that can best be achieved by listening and being open to the Other.

May Rabbi David Hartman's memory continue to bless us with his quest for truth and commitment to love one another.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Preparing For A Blizzard On Shabbat

When Adar arrives, joy increases.     
Mi she-nich-nas Adar mar-bim be-simcha
The new month of Adar, the month of Purim, will arrive on Saturday night/Sunday this weekend. But, like April Fool's Day, as we observe the New Moon of Adar the joke will be on us.

The new month is to be announced at Shabbat services this week, which is scheduled to be Shabbat Kulanu Yachad at HBT. Often referred to by its acronym, SKY, this is intended to be a time for all of us together. Instead, we will have SNOW, Shabbat Nestled in Our Warm homes.

In case we cancel Shabbat Kulanu Yachad, we don't need to cancel Shabbat. The theme for this Shabbat is intended to focus on what brings joy to our lives. One quote that I had selected for our Shabbat readings is by 17th century English essayist, Joseph Addison,
"The grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for. "                  

As we prepare for the blizzard, gearing up for cabin fever and potentially losing power, I want to suggest seven ways to find something to do, something to love and something to hope for this Shabbat. Though we may not be together at HBT, we can still celebrate the peace and respite and joy of Shabbat during the storm.

1. Make a list of all the things you CAN do, not the things you can't.
The weather will limit much of what we usually do, or what we'd like to do. But there is so much that is still possible, even without tv or computers! You have a choice how you will spend this time. The first choice will be, will you spend your day complaining or making the best of your life?

2. Enjoy the people you are with.
Take advantage of the slow pace to be present in the moment. Smile. Let go of the need to control the situation, because most likely, you can't. And if you are alone, or you know someone who is alone, reach out.

   3. Think about what makes you truly happy.
Then do something that brings happiness to you and those around you.

4. Look backward or inward.
Pick up a book you have wanted to read, or reread an old favorite. Open up the photo albums and relive the moments. Meditate. Do yoga. Read the Torah portion, Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1 - 24:18) and discuss. Write in your journal. Awaken your memories and your imagination.

5. Check on your neighbors, especially the elderly.

6. Feed the birds.

7. Enjoy the snow.
Whether you go outside to play or to shovel or you look through a window, marvel at the beauty of the world, admire the storm's power, take pleasure in the wintry scene.

And if you need any assistance, please let someone know. I will leave my phone number on the temple voicemail in case you need to reach me.

Most important, please stay safe and keep warm. May your heat work non-stop and may your power be uninterrupted.