Friday, August 17, 2012

Parashat Reeh: What does the Torah say about going on vacation?

(adapted from my Shofar Newsletter article from 2011)

Here’s a good question to ask in August: What does the Torah teach us about how to go on

The initial answer might be, not so much. You would have a hard time coming up with
references to vacation in the Torah. Perhaps you could say that the institution of Shabbat is like
a weekly vacation, but that’s pretty metaphorical. In general, there’s not much leisure described
in the torah.

What there IS a lot of in the Torah – is travel. Abraham moves to the land of Israel. The people
of Israel go down to Egypt, and then take a long and scenic route for forty years back to the land
of Israel. But it’s hard to describe all that travel as being like tourism. Most of it is more like
desperate wandering and displacement, which is rather different from vacation.

But surprisingly, there is a reference to going away on vacation in the Torah portion of Re’eh (which we will read this year on Saturday, August 18, 2012).   It can teach us something about the way we experience
time and connect with our heritage.

In the Torah portion of Re’eh (Deuteronomy 14:22-27), we are told that, during the era when
a Temple stood in Jerusalem, we were to separate out one tenth of the produce of our fields
(actually, one tenth of the produce that remains after we have paid all other taxes and tithes). We
were supposed to set aside that produce, but unlike other tithes which are given to the needy, this
tithe, which is called maaser sheni, would still belong to us. The rule is, however, that we could
only consume that produce in the city of Jerusalem.

This law is, of course, very convenient if you happen to live in Jerusalem. But those Israelites
who did not live in Jerusalem would now have a certain portion of their produce that could only
be consumed in Jerusalem. This would give them a financial incentive to visit Jerusalem. They
would probably plan to go for one of the three major pilgrimage festivals, when hordes of people
would descend on Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, Shavuot, or Sukkot.

The Torah then says that if you live at a distance from Jerusalem, the first thing you would
probably do is sell the produce so you can convert it to cash. You could then carry that cash with
you when you go on your pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and that cash would then function as your
vacation budget while you’re away in Jerusalem. You can spend it on anything you want, so
long as you’re in the city limits of Jerusalem.

This institution of maaser sheni was good for the people, because it forced them to get away
from life as normal. We often experience time differently when we are away from home. Our
experiences outside of our normal routine can often be transformative. And it was good for the
economy of Jerusalem, because it encouraged consumer spending in Jerusalem. And was good
for the Jewish people as a whole, because the institution of maaser sheni encouraged everyone
to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, even the people who might have thought that they couldn’t
afford it. And the fact that the pilgrimage in Jerusalem was one that everyone would take part in,
made it a more powerful experience for everyone, and heightened its transformative power.

Sometimes an experience may look to us like something that we are doing for ourselves, but it
turns out that we’re not only doing it for ourselves – we’re also doing it for our community and
our people.

There are a few contemporary parallels to this maaser sheni experience. The first parallel might
be obvious: travel to Israel.

As we know, travel to Israel is remarkably expensive. There are very few people in our
community who can simply pick up everything and travel to Israel without thinking about it
seriously – planning, budgeting for it, in some cases for years in advance. But it can’t be denied
that travel to Israel has a transformative effect on the Jewish identity of the people who visit
there. It may feel like something that one is doing for oneself -- and it is, in fact, something one
is doing for oneself -- but it’s also something that one does for the people of Israel and for the
Jewish people in general.

For these reasons, I encourage people to think differently about travel to Israel than other
destinations. I encourage people to think of the spending that they do on a trip to Israel not only
in the category of the funds they expend on themselves, but also in the category of the funds they
expend to benefit other people. When someone returns from a trip to Israel, energized about
his or her Jewish identity, that yields both personal benefit to the person, and also benefit to the
entire Jewish community and the entire Jewish people. If Israel is not yet on your list of places
you have been, I encourage you to start strategizing how you could make it a reality. (And if you
have been to Israel before, I encourage you to start strategizing about your next trip!)

In my opinion, a second parallel to maaser sheni, believe it or not, is Jewish summer camp.

I know it may feel a little unusual that I am going from talking about the Torah, to talking about
Israel, to talking about Jewish summer camp. But my guess is that people who have gone to
Jewish summer camps do not find this connection to be surprising.

What many American Jews find so striking about visiting Israel is that Israel is a place where
being Jewish is normative, rather than countercultural and unusual and compartmentalized as
it usually is in the United States for most of us. In fact, one of the few contexts in the United
States where people can experience Judaism as normative is at Jewish summer camps. (As long
as they actually have real Jewish content.)

It’s been said that Jewish summer camps are the most valuable of all Jewish educational
institutions in the United States for strengthening kids’ Jewish identities – and whereas I am a
passionate advocate for Jewish day school and Jewish supplemental school education, I agree at
least halfway with this statement. Again, it’s a vacation – but it’s one that ideally yields benefit
not just for the child, but for the Jewish people.

Children can return from a Jewish summer camp experience and say, “Now I see what Judaism
actually looks like in its natural habitat. Now I get what Shabbat is really about, having
experienced a complete Shabbat.” It’s not just the child who benefits from an experience like that, but the entire family, the community, and the entire Jewish people. It’s pilgrimage as much as it is vacation.

This year, kids in our Hoboken Jewish community have attended Jewish overnight summer camps including Camp Galil (Habonim Dror), Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, Camp Ramah in the Poconos, Cedar
Lake (New Jersey Y Camps), and Shomria (Hashomer Ha-Tzair), among others. Information
about all these camps and more is available at -- and many of the
parents of these kids would be delighted to share their experiences.

Wishing all our campers, and everyone in our community, a wonderful remainder of the summer. And if you will be on vacation for some part of the remainder of the summer, I hope it is happy, peaceful, and restorative for you!

Monday, August 13, 2012

My comments at the Vigil in Memory of Those Killed at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin

This evening, I attended a candlelight vigil in memory of those who were murdered in the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.  The event was organized by the Sikh Coalition, the Sikh community in Jersey City, and the city of Jersey City.  It took place at Jersey City Hall and included the participation of a wide range of political and religious leaders.  My remarks at that event are below:

In July 2009 I attended the inauguration of Hoboken’s elected officials,
including City Councilman Ravi Bhalla.
I remember that the emotional high point of that day for me
came when I saw that the Councilman was taking the oath of office
with his hand on a book of the Sikh scriptures.

And it reminded me of my pride
when I had watched Hoboken’s Jewish elected officials taking THEIR oaths of office
with their hands on a Hebrew-language edition of the Torah,
just as Christian elected officials take the oath with their hands on a Bible of their choice.

It filled me with pride to see this one tangible symbol
of our striving
to create in Hudson County, and in the United States,
a society where religious and cultural differences
are not a source of anxiety, not a threat to national cohesion,
but rather, those differences are among this country’s greatest assets;
they are a source of celebration,
and they are not a barrier to full participation in and comfort and security in our society.

More than 150 years ago, the poet Walt Whitman famously described the United States as
"not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations."

This is the American way -- not the racism and intolerance of bigots,
and not the xenophobic violence and murder we saw last week.
The spectre of innocent people slaughtered in a racially and religiously motivated attack in a house of worship -
reminds so many of us of the most tragic episodes in the histories of our own faiths.
May no community EVER need to experience such a horror again.

In the words of the Prayer for our Country

that is recited in synagogues around the United States each week:

Dear God, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit.
May citizens of all races and creeds
forge a common  bond to banish all hatred and bigotry
and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions that are our country’s pride and glory.
May this land, under Your Providence, be an influence for good throughout the world
uniting all people in peace and freedom,
and helping them to fulfill the vision of Your prophet:
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they experience war anymore.
And let us say:  Amen.