Parashat Chayei Sara

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This is the Dvar Torah I wrote for the Kesher this week at Mt Sinai. I’ve added some additional commentary underneath it. 

“I just felt like running.” That’s how Forrest Gump answered when asked why he ran across the country. Running was something he had relied on as a child, and he returned to it as an adult. He wasn’t running to or away from anything. He just ran.

Three very different characters dominate the central story of this parasha: Elazar, Rivkah and Lavan. Elazar is the serious, humble servant focused entirely on finding a wife for Yitzchak. Rivkah is the kind, thoughtful even naive young woman who wants nothing more than to help others and make people happy. Lavan is the calculating, self-preserving brother in search of wealth and power.

The common denominator among all three, however, is that they all run. In the span of only 13 psukim, Elazar runs to meet Rivkah, Rivkah runs to fill the trough and ready her home for Elazar’s arrival, and Lavan runs to greet Elazar. They each posess the trait of zrizut, but the manner and means towards which they implement it is very different.

It’s no chiddush that Lavan is running for the wrong reasons, but is it significant to see that Elazar runs only once while Rivkah runs to fulfill two acts of chessed? Elazar is a servant and shaliach of Avraham’s – he serves his master to the best of his ability, but is ultimately only fulfilling the wishes of another. Rivkah is an individual who is acting on her free will – there is no pressure or external responsibility to take any action. Rivkah is realizing on her own that she has a responsibility to act, and she does so with avidity.

The world we live in presents us with very serious challenges. People suffer both locally and abroad. Injustices and discrimination run rampant, and innocent people are left by the wayside. Violence and harassment are not unknown even in our own communities, and we need to decide how to respond. We have to decide if we’re going to run towards the problems or away from them – will we be the selfless Rivkah, the obedient Elazar, or the selfish Lavan?

It’s easy to ignore the question altogether. We live fast paced lives – many of us on treadmills that keep us moving towards no particular goal and in no particular direction. We must fight the temptation to “just run” like Forrest, and ensure that we aren’t running away from the problems of this world. Let’s commit to following in the steps of Rivkah Imeinu, and run headstrong in support of causes we believe in, and in the direction of chessed, emet and tzedek.

I was inspired to write this dvar torah following the recent clustering of violent attacks and overwhelming harassment against homosexuals. Many religious, political and communal leaders across the country stood up and spoke out against this sort of bullying and attacks. Unfortunately, only a handful of Orthodox leaders took a stand against this universal cause, and even those few took a while to come around.

Homophobia and/or hate for homosexuals is not the only cause worth standing up for. There are many injustices in this world, and we need to stand up for as many of them as possible. Some require the contribution of funds, others require volunteering and action, and a few require nothing more than a statement of solidarity. When the rare opportunity to help someone in need comes in the form of a spoken word, written piece or facebook update, how can we pass it up?

I know this dvar torah wasn’t the most intellectually stimulating, but that wasn’t my goal. I want us all to think about the implications of our actions and damage that can perpetuate due to our inaction. Pick your fight, take your stand, and don’t allow momentum to keep you from standing up for something you believe in.

Water

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I promised a couple of people that I would address issues that were bothering me (Simchat Torah policies just to name one), but it seemed like I never got around to finishing any posts.

Well, I’ve decided that in honor of Blog Action Day 2010: Water, I’m going to write a post that’s a little different from what I usually write.

While I was sitting in shul on Yom Kippur, I began to think about the things in the world I wanted to change. My mind first focused on a number of social issues that bothered me: Women’s rights in Judaism, LGBT rights in Judaism and general society, prison reform, universal health care, and others. These are matters I am always reading about in the NYTimes, talking about with my friends, and thinking about when I head to the polls.

But then I looked at one of the “Al Chet” statements of confession that are recited over and over again on Yom Kippur. “Al Chet Sh’chatanu lefanecha b’tsumet Yad” – For the sin we have committed before you in extending the hand.” Artscroll provided an uninspired explanation for this, but I think this is more a sin of omission than commission. We need to think about all of the people to whom we have failed to reach out our hands and help.

While we’re living nice and comfortable lives (in Washington Heights or elsewhere), there are almost 1Billion people around the world who can’t even feel comfortable with their access to clean water. If there is no other basic human right, it should be the ability to drink, cook and bathe with clean disease-free water.

I once read that the standard used by International NGOs is to aim for every person have 5 gallons of clean water per day. What has always horrified me was learning that the average American shower head dispenses 5 gallons of clean water every minute!

Obviously taking a shorter shower won’t send that unused water to a village in Africa, Asia or anywhere else, but it puts in perspective how much water we waste every day, and how much we take this valuable resource for granted.

It’s hard to come to terms with all of the bad things that happen because there isn’t enough water in the world, but here are just a few:

  • Researchers predict that wars will break out in regions that have severe water insecurity. Water access was a major factor in the atrocities of Darfur, and the future is just as bleak.
  • Pollution of rivers and lakes around the world is on the rise, and more than 40% of rivers and lakes in the US are unfit for swimming, fishing or aquatic life.
  • Every week, nearly 38,000 children under the age of 5 die from unsafe drinking water and unhygienic living conditions

There’s a lot we could do help more people access clean water, but most of us won’t be travelling to build wells in villages or teach drip-irrigation to rural farmers. Unfortunately, most of us will forget about this in a matter of minutes. So what you can do really simply is just donate $25 to Water.org, a non-profit that is working to provide drinking water to people around the world. Take that small step, feel good about yourself, and go take a shower.

Think about it.

I’m Coming Out

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Today is National Coming Out Day, and I’m coming out as an LGBT Ally.

In too many communities and sub-communities, cultures and sub-cultures, there is still a strong stigma against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender/transexual individuals. In some places as we have seen recently the result is violence and harassment. In others we can find isolation, exclusion and branding in a way that can and does drive people to depression and suicide. In a modern country like the one we live in, it is inconceivable that sexual identity is the basis for people to be openly discriminated against in the military, business places, houses of worship and private homes.

Unfortunately, I am part of one of those communities where the stigma is strong (nerds: please insert Star Wars reference here.) In the Modern Orthodox community, too many people refer to homosexuality as SSA (Same Sex Attraction) and imply that it is a disease or affliction. In too many congregations, the only homosexual congregants that are accepted with open arms are those seeking therapy in the slim hopes of somehow changing their sexual nature through dangerous practices and highly questionable procedures.

There are not enough Modern Orthodox communities where it is OK for LGBT members to simply live their lives without having to disguise their life partner or spouse as a roommate. Too many MO teens who struggle with their sexual identity because they feel there is no one to talk to if they are gay or lesbian. There are not enough LGBT safe places, and there are not enough straight people standing up and saying that they will not judge, but rather offer an open hand.

So today was designed to accomplish just this goal. National Coming Out Day is an opportunity to give an excuse and some encouragement to people who want to share an important part of who they are with friends and loved ones. But NCOD is also an opportunity and excuse for straight people to share publicly with the people they know that they will not discriminate or ignore someone in their community because of sexual identity, but will rather serve as an ally, friend and partner.

Statistically speaking, most of the people reading this post are not LGB or T. So to all of you out there, tell your coworkers, friends and relatives that you will not stand for hateful or hurtful comments about homosexuals. Talk to your bosses about making your company or organization more gay friendly. Make a commitment to be careful with your speech and not judge people you meet just because they might be a little different. Ask your school or university to create an anti-bullying or anti-harassment policy that explicitly mentions acts that are based on sexual identity. Take today to send a letter to your elected officials asking them to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, or to change the law in your state to recognize same-sex marriage.

And to my readers/friends who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transexual, queer, questioning, straight, and whatever, I have the following to say: You are my friends and I’m going to treat you all the same. You are all people I care about, and it doesn’t make a difference whether you are gay or straight. It is my mission to do my best with my limited abilities to fight for a more equal community that believes in full human and civil rights for all people.

Consider taking today, or any other day, as an opportunity to stand up for equality.