Saturday, July 4, 2020

JFSA - Parshat Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-22:1, 22:2-25:9)

A Helping Hand Makes all the Difference

First, I want to thank everyone for the wonderful outpouring of supportive and welcoming comments following last weeks newsletter. Your feedback, thoughts, suggestions, and even critical comments are all deeply appreciated. The Jewish Federation of San Antonio is here to listen, plan, and ensure a sustainable future for our San Antonio Jewish community, and this cannot be realized without your input and participation.


Staying on the theme of appreciation and thanks, Id like to share a special thank you to all our service members as we prepare to celebrate a safe Independence Day this weekend, and highlight a local Jewish agency, our Jewish War Veterans of America Post 753. I recently visited with one of the elders of Post 753, and as one topic flowed into another in our casual conversation, it was the theme of brotherhood and community that kept surfacing, specifically what does it mean to have indescribable bonds like these.


In this weeks Torah portion, Chukat-Balak, we read the famous lines of Bilam the prophet who was hired to curse the Israelites, but who instead blessed them unintentionally with the words, mah tovu ohalecha Yakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael (How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!”) Numbers 24:5.


Over the centuries our sages have tried to make sense of this bizarre unfolding of events with much discussion, but it is the great Rashi, one of our most well-known commentaries, who simply suggests that Bilam became inspired by the sight of the Hebrew encampment and was overwhelmed with its beauty and order, and individuals support for one another. Bilam saw a community with a common cause, setting differences aside, and supporting one another for the good of the group.


Charles Darwin, in his most controversial book, The Descent of Man, presented the theory of the survival of the fittest. This clear concept of brute force and instinct to survive, no matter the circumstances, is how he explained nature selects the strongest lineage for continued survival. This theory presented an individuals need over the tribe. The idea of win at all costs, no matter the moral or virtuous ramifications. Yet, in the same book Darwin finds a conflicting theory that he cannot explain. When it comes to the collective group, when we look at the characteristics of the tribe, Darwin saw an opposite theory.


A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.” (p.132)


Darwin identified that if the individuals could somehow come together and work as a unified group the weaker” characteristics of trust, respect, and care for one another override the system and prove to help the tribe survive over time.


It is this brotherhood” that my friend of Post 753 referenced, and it is this sense of common purpose that we at the JFSA want to establish for our Jewish community of San Antonio.


This weekend, as we celebrate our country’s independence, please go to Post 753s FaceBook page and share a thank you to our local veterans, or simply like their page. I know they would sincerely appreciate the thought.

Shabbat shalom.

Friday, June 26, 2020

JFSA - Parshat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)

Jewish Wisdom from 
Our Community and the Torah

I admit, I have struggled this week in writing this column. As the new Interim CEO, I have already received welcome feedback from the community, some good, supportive comments, and some critical, concerned, and challenging — all of which are welcome as I listen and learn in this new role. 

I knew that by accepting this professional opportunity, I would not only be leading a community agency tasked with uniting, planning, and fundraising for our Jewish future, but also with listening, collaborating, and holding myself accountable to the highest standards of Jewish leadership possible. 

Every day of every week the Federation staff and volunteers demonstrate their dedication to, and passion for, our Jewish community through such actions as:
  • Partnering with other interfaith and inter-racial groups to address racism, whether through community dialogue, security training, or legislative activism through our Community Relations Council (CRC);
  • Educating the greater San Antonio and Rio Grande Valley community on the historical significance and Jewish experience during the Holocaust through the efforts of the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio (HMMSA);
  • Empowering Jewish families with young children to read Jewish books together, instilling a love of Jewish life from the earliest of ages with our free PJ Library SA program;
  • Securing beyond-life gifts to ensure the sustainability of Jewish San Antonio through our LIFE & LEGACY initiative;
  • And so much more!
But candidly, what I was not prepared for, was the suggestion that connecting our Jewish Federation mission’s work to the weekly Torah portion was not necessary.

Here’s my take: I am the professional leader of a Jewish agency tasked with leading our community toward a vibrant, active, and sustainable Jewish future in San Antonio. If I do not use the Torah as the guide in my decision-making; if I do not solicit the input of thousands of years of Jewish wisdom when faced with weighing the challenges of our community; and if I do not reach out to our local rabbis for their expertise, collaboration, and rabbinic understanding, then what or who should guide my leadership as the chief executive officer of a Jewish agency?

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, we read that, “[the people] assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire community are all holy, and G-d is in their midst.’” (Numbers 16:3) 

I too feel your assemblage (and I in no way claim to be remotely comparable to Moses or Aaron!) so please, please reach out and let me know how you would like to get involved and help move our Jewish community forward. 

If the Jewish Federation does not have the specific committee or program to engage your passion, we will connect you to the Jewish agency in town that best suits your interests. 

This is not a job for one person, nor for a great team of professionals like we have at the Federation, nor for the broad range of Jewish communal professionals across the San Antonio community. 

This is a responsibility that we all have as Jewish community members tasked with laying the groundwork for the generations who will follow. We are tasked to listen, to plan, and to ensure a strong, vibrant Jewish future in our city. Please join us on this journey.

Shabbat shalom.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Parashat Achrei Mot - the assumption of family

Words of Torah
Parashat Achrei Mot
Leviticus 16:1-18:30

"And Aaron shall bring his sin offering bull, 
and initiate atonement for himself and for his household."
~~Leviticus 16:6

Sometimes the Torah is obvious, overt, and the message is succinct and crystal clear. "You will not steal!" and "You will not murder!" leave zero room for misinterpretation. However, sometimes the Torah isn't as direct and obvious as it might be when offering the reader the opportunity to learn and glean from its messages and teachings.This week has a hidden gem that with a casual reading might go unnoticed.

In Leviticus 16:6 Gd in conversation with Moses lists some of the laws for the High Priests and offers the above statement expressing the expectation that Aaron and future High Priests will be imperfect and will need a sin offering at some point during their lives. Now, you might say that even this is a point worthy of discussion. That the High Priest who has devoted his life to Gd and who lived a holy experience with everything he did, would have needed to offer a bull for whatever poor choice or action he committed? And you'd be right, that is worthy of discussion...but not this week.

The hidden gem in this verse is that it assumes that the High Priest will be "human" in another way, not in his potential imperfection, but in the expectation of having a family and a "household" for whom the sin offering includes. Being the High Priest in Israel did not mean dedicating one's life, 24/7/365, to Gd, the Temple, and all things sacred. Rather, being a High Priest included having a family, growing in one's life experiences, and being part of and responsible to a community.

The sages say that in order for the High Priest to pray on behalf of the people, he needed to live life as one of them. He was no better, he was no different, he was simply "chosen" to fulfill this specific task just as the other Israelites were "chosen" to fulfill different tasks. Leadership is about being able to empathize and see what the people see, to understand for what they are looking, and to feel their emotions when things go wrong or right. Having a family provided the High Priest this critical perspective.

As Sister Sledge's famous song so eloquently states, "Have faith in you and the things you do," because "We are family!"

Shabbat shalom.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Parashat Shoftim - Lady Justice personified...

Words of Torah
Parashat Shoftim
Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

"You shall not pervert justice; 
you shall not show favoritism, 
and you shall not take a bribe..."
~~Deuteronomy 16:19

There are many people around the globe who may at first glance be able to identify Lady Justice (pictured above).  However, if one was to ask what were the symbols that identify Lady Justice, significantly fewer would be able to answer.  Then, if you were to ask what these symbols might mean or from where these symbols obtained their meaning, even fewer, if any, would be correct. Yet, it is in this week's parsha, where we read of the origin of these three metonymic attributes.

"You shall not pervert justice" speaks to the origin of the sword.  We are obligated to ensure that the process of justice is allowed to take its course and that causing delay or unnecessary obstruction needs to be addressed with the swift stroke of the sword.

"You shall not show favoritism" personifies the balanced scales.  Justice cannot "tip the scales" in favor of, or in opposition to, any judicial process.  For justice to work it needs to take its course void of any influencing factors.

"You shall not take a bribe" is highlighted by the blindfold.  If justice cannot see who is in the court to support one side or the other, then justice will not know from whom a "gift" or bribe may come. Justice is "blind" to the pressures of those who would try to influence her.

It is of no coincidence that the very next verse in the Torah following the above justice attributes is the famous "tzedek, tzedek tirdoff" ("justice, justice shall you pursue"), Deut 16:20. Although our great sages ranged from attributing this repetition from being a literary device for emphasis, to the dual stage of not only pursuing justice but also the righteous court that can and will provide it, however, to me the timing of this verse with the above three attributes is not so random or disconnected.

When I was first introduced to the concept of "pursuing justice" it was to help me understand that justice will not happen passively.  Rather, it is our obligation to be active participants in ensuring it's righteous resolution.  If allowed to float down the stream of cultural norms and society's indifference, justice will never be able to come to shore.  Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to "pursue" it.

Yet, at what cost should this pursuit be done?  To the ultimate death?  To one's personal discomfort?  

This is where the repetition comes in to play.  I believe that the repeated "justice" in the quote is to let us know that it is incumbent on us to pursue justice as long as one of the three attributes above is still in place.  As long as there has been no perversion, no favoritism, or no bribery, then we must still pursue the justice.  However, if it reaches a point of all three having been compromised, then we are to stop because it is now in the hands of Gd.  In situations where all three justice attributes have been compromised, then this verse teaches us that the judicial system has become so corrupt that it is beyond our human capacity to pursue...and as we have learned from history, there have been numerous times when our society has in fact compromised all three, only to experience the consequences of these corrupt societies.

Let us continue to pursue justice in order to right the wrongs and repair the ills.

Shabbat shalom

Friday, May 13, 2016

Parashat Kedoshim: otherwise possibly known as the most optimistic of Torah portions.

Words of Torah
Parashat Kedoshim
Leviticus 19:1-20:27

"Every [person] shall fear his mother and father..."
~~Leviticus 19:3

I doubt there are adults, especially parents, who have never quoted or at least referenced the words of the fifth commandment when speaking about the relationship and expectations of a child to their parent; "Honor your father and mother." 

However, this week, in the Torah portion titled "Holy Ones" (Kedoshim) we read the above "revised" obligation for a child to a parent.  

The idea of a child "fearing" a parent goes against the common culture of the western world when it comes to raising children. Do we really want our children to "fear" us as parents?  "Honor" we can certainly live with. "Respect" would be lovely. But "fear"? Really?

The idea of a child fearing a parent goes against most "normative" and commonly accepted parenting handbooks found in any modern society library or bookstore.  So why does the Torah, in the portion titled "the holy ones" (Kedoshim) use fear as the definition of the expected behavior between a child and parent?

The easy answer, of course, is that the Torah was given to us in a time when fear was an acceptable emotion for children to have toward their parents.  In fact, one need only go back a few generations in this country to know that the use of fear in parenting was a common and accepted form of raising children.  So, why wouldn't it make sense when taken in the context of the time the Torah was written?

The reason for my difficulty with this passage is because I genuinely believe that although the text may be dated, the lessons to be learned from the text are eternal. So what does it mean that a child "fear" their parent in the context of today's society?

As an educational administrator I have often had conversations with teachers on the topic of discipline. "How can I get them to behave the way I want?" "I'm not a mean or strict person, so scaring them doesn't come naturally to me" are common variations of beginning teachers perceptions about how they need to manage their classrooms. They genuinely believe that discipline comes from the creation of a fearful environment and so scaring the students into submissive behavior is how they will have respectful students in their classroom.

On the other hand, "master teachers" (whom I differentiate from veteran teachers - which is a separate discussion for another blog) have come to understand that a respectful classroom environment does not mean that every child is always on task and/or never disruptive.  The master teacher develops a culture of dignity in their class, respect to oneself, others, and the inanimate room and objects themselves. Of course, the master teacher will never define this environment as originating from a sense of "fear", but the sociologist may argue differently!

"Fear" is defined as "an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous." Sociologists will tell us that the reason someone follows the rules is because they are not interested in suffering the consequences if caught breaking the rules.  It is natural to balance the risk vs reward of choosing to behave poorly, but if the risk is too great the choice is rarely too difficult.  In other words, the master teacher has established an environment where the common understanding of the community is to follow the accepted norms.

So why use "fear" in the Torah to describe the relationship between a child and parent? Because Gd is simply saying, kids, just know that the risks and consequences to mistreating your parents is way too great for you to even consider...just don't bother.  It takes the discussion off the table with the intent that the optimal behaviors will follow.

Here's to my (and apparently Gd's) eternal optimism!

Shabbat shalom.