Truths You Can Use

Truths You Can Use

A Bar Mitzvah Boy Goes Viral

bar mitzvah video

A new video is causing a sensation in the Jewish community. Rather than send out a traditional save-the-date card for his Bar Mitzvah (Jewish coming of age ceremony), 12-year-old Daniel Blumen decided to create a rap video.

Weaving in various celebrities and political officials, the video highlights the meaning of his ceremony and his hometown of Atlanta. After a website wrote a story about the video, it went viral, receiving (as of this writing) 318,000 views.

Why the Fuss?

Reactions to the video have ranged from horror to shock to mild bemusement. The overwhelming attitude has been one of frustration.

Many have expressed concern about the focus on entertainment rather than spirituality. Is it appropriate for a religious ceremony to become fodder for a celebrity-laden rap video?

Rather than feel frustration, I watched the video with delight. It is cute, funny, and creative, and it is clear that Daniel is taking his religious studies seriously.

In this case, the medium is not the message. Rather, the message–the importance of his Jewish faith and studies–is enhanced by the medium.

Is There Too Much “Bar” and Not Enough “Mitzvah”?

The broader issue here is the relationship between religion and popular culture. Does engaging with pop culture somehow diminish the meaning of a spiritual message? Does religion’s association with pop stars somehow convey an endorsement of their values?

No and no. Faith does not need to be counter-cultural in order to exert a positive influence. It can use the tools of the larger culture to provide a meaningful critique and perspective on it.

Another broader issue is the meaning and purpose of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Some see it as an unfortunate focus of contemporary Jewish life.

One of my rabbinic precessors forbid Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies at the synagogue because he said they involved “too much bar (drinking alcohol)” and “not enough mitzvah (doing good deeds).”

Living Our Faith

While this is undoubtedly true in some cases, the vast majority of families find Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies to be among the most moving experiences of their lives.

I’ve seen parents break down in tears as they bless their children; grandparents beam with joy as their grandchildren stand before the congregation; children gain self-esteen and confidence as they read from the Bible with poise and insight.  

One of Daniel’s teachers put it best when he said, “The world changes. We’re trying to get kids to take leadership positions and create a new world and not be stuck in the past. We encourage critical thinking and creativity..and a kid who’s put himself out there regarding his faith,  good for him.”

To that all we can say is, “Amen.”

To receive Rabbi Moffic’s weekly digest of Jewish wisdom, click here.

From Tim Tebow to Chick-fil-A: A Plea for Civility

chick-fil-A tim tebow

On Wednesday Quarterback Tim Tebow cancelled an upcoming appearance at a Dallas Megachurch. The church’s controversial teachings and pastor Robert Jeffers seem to be the reason. Jeffers has spoken out vociferously against homosexuality, Islam and Mormonism.

Has Politics Taken Over

While I oppose Jeffers’ teachings, we all lose when religion becomes a political lightening rod. It happened when the media highlighted the conservative causes supported by the owner of Chick-fil-A. It happened when television stations played endless clips of President Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright.

We see it in the Jewish community as well. In Seattle, for example, a gay support group rescinded an invitation to an Israeli gay support group because some argued that having anyone from Israel speak would give unfair legitimacy to “Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

How did politics take over religious discourse? Faith is meant to bring people together, not drive them apart. It is about building bonds, not driving television ratings or newspaper sales. How can we shift the tone of the conversation?

1. Soften our language: “A soft answer turns away wrath,” says the Book of Proverbs, “but a harsh word stirs up anger.” “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Verbal violence, as Jonathan Sacks points out, is often a prelude to physical violence.

We need to be careful when we call someone or some teachings hateful. We need to be careful when we condemn groups or individuals or entire communities.

2. Reject censorship: Good people can disagree. Two of the early rabbis in Jewish history, Hillel and Shammai, disagreed on practically everything. And Hillel won most of their arugments.

Yet, they respected one another’s points of view, and a later rabbi concluded their disagreements aided Judaism’s search for truth and understanding of God’s will. Engagement and conversation works much better than muzzling and censorship.

3. Remember what unites us rather than divides us: It is human nature to focus on what differentiates us. We categorize people based on skin color, hair color, age, birthplace, religion, and so on. Each of these differences makes us who we are, and we should celebrate them.

Yet, when we define ourselves too narrowly, we limit our perspective. We limit our ability to engage with others. No matter how strongly we feel about an issue, we need to open ourselves up to the other side.

How To Disagree With Dignity

To listen is not to accept. To engage in conversation is not to give a stamp of approval. To show respect is not to give up your point of view.

Rather, Respecting others is a sign of strength, not weakness. It bespeaks courage, not cowardice. It lends itself to dignity and not division.

None of us have a monopoly on God’s truth. Let us learn to live with that wisdom and humility.

To receive Rabbi Moffic’s weekly digest of Jewish wisdom, click here.

Do You Believe in Miracles?

Do you believe in miracles?

I believe in miracles of hope and of change. Miracles of character and of action. Miracles of transformation when we discover something inside of us we did not know we had.

do you believe in miracles?

We witness this type of miracle in the story of the Jewish holiday of Purim. In a seminal scene, Queen Esther has to decide whether she will reveal to the King that she is Jewish and urge him to rescind his decree to destroy the Jews of his kingdom. 

Her uncle Mordecai urges her to do so. He say, “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14) 

In other words, this is your chance to perform a miracle. You can change the fate of a people. Esther does so, and she is remembered two thousand years later. 

How to Perform a Miracle

We all have these opportunities in life. They may not be as dramatic as Queen Esther’s, but they make a difference. 

Earlier this year a member of my synagogue told me a story. It happened during the early 1980s, when the former Soviet Union began to allow a tiny number of people to leave the country.

She and her family were fleeing from Romania. When they arrived in Germany, they had to pay an admittance tax. It was not an exorbitant amount, but they had absolutely no money. It had been confiscated. If they did not pay the tax, their papers would not get stamped. They would be turned back.

They talked with the customs official. They cried. They pleaded. Frustrated by the delay, people in line began to shout at them to move out of the way. 

God Has No Hands But Ours

Then something happened. The airport worker who had carried their bags to the customs office set them down. He took some money out of his pocket. He paid the clerk.

He turned around and walked back toward the airplane. He never said a word. They never saw him again. 

Would you say this was a miracle? A miracle does not have to violate the laws of science. A miracle happens when the veil behind which God is hidden is lifted and our perspective changes.

A miracle happens when God works through our hands and our hearts.  

To receive Rabbi Moffic’s weekly digest of Jewish wisdom, click here.

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Is Purim the Jewish Halloween?

Purim is not the Jewish Halloween. This is a common misconception because Purim does involve dressing up. Yet, it is not only a fun-filled holiday. It actually teaches profound lesson. One of them can be found through an exercise in Jewish numerology.

A Secret Message in the Numbers

Numbers have great importance in Judaism. Seven is holy because God created the world in seven days. Three is holy because the world is sustained by three things: study, prayer and acts of lovingkindness.

Numbers used in the Bible can also teach important lessons. One lesson emerges in a description of  the central character of the Jewish holiday of Purim. Her name is Esther. At the beginning of the biblical Book of Esther, we learn that the area in which she and the King ruled included “127 provinces.”

esther purim hidden

On the surface, the number 127 does not seem important. Yet, the Jewish sages pointed out that this  is not the only time we see the number 127 in the Bible. Back in the book of Genesis, we learn that Sarah, the wife of Abraham, lived to age 127. Is there a connection between Sarah and Esther?

Absolutely. The connection is two-fold.

1. Sarah and Esther lived each day to their fullest: The sages arrived at this conclusion because of the way the Bible describes the end of Sarah’s life. When she dies, the text says “127 were the years of the life of Sarah.” The grammar is odd. It could have just said Sarah was 127 years old when she died.

The odd grammar, however, is meant to teach a lesson. The Bible uses the odd sentence structure “the years of the life of Sarah” to emphasize that every one of those years was full of life. She made each day count.

She knew the truth of words uttered by Steven Carr Reuben, “The most important challenge is not learning how to live after death, it’s learning how to live after birth.” Like Sarah and Esther, we try to make each day count.

2. God is ever-present: The Book of Esther is unique amongst the books of the Bible. God is never mentioned. Unlike every other book, where Goes plays an active role in the narrative, God does not appear. How is this possible?

The best clue to finding the answer is in Esther’s name. The Hebrew word Hester means hidden. God is never absent, but sometimes God feels hidden. God feels absent.

Yet, God is never truly absent. By linking Esther with Sarah, for whom God was frequently present, the text is revealing the Divine role. God is as present for Esther–and for us–as He was in the days of Abraham and Sarah. Sometimes what matters most is hidden in plain sight.

To receive Rabbi Moffic’s weekly digest of Jewish wisdom, click here.

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