Monday, February 25, 2008

Mental Tikkun Olam

In my ongoing search for ways to improve myself and to help perfect the world, I came across a pretty cool organization: To Write Love on Her Arms.  They work to raise awareness of depression, drug addiction, self-mutilation, and related issues; they do this by partnering with rock bands who are receptive to the message and don't mind sharing the stage for a few minutes.  

This is, I believe, a valuable service, because there are a great many people out there, particularly young people, who don't know where to go for help.  There are others who choose not to get help due to the stigma associated with mental illness, and feel like they are the only ones who suffer, but when someone has the courage to stand up in front of an audience and say that there are others out there, it can help to give sufferers the strength to seek necessary treatment.

It's a pretty powerful thing.  There are talented writers who maintain a blog of the group's activities, and document stories of lives transformed.  I've spent days reading every article.
Eventually, I decided to join their Street Team, in an effort to continue their good works.  I hope to encourage them to come to Alaska, and to help the people here.   As a state, we've got huge suicide problem (particularly in the villages), and many of us are afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

If you want to join, click here.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Service 2-23-2008

Today's Torah portion covered the Golden Calf Incident.
The discussion didn't center on idolotry, though, which was pretty cool.  Instead, we talked about God's discussion with Moses.  I hadn't really ever noticed that Moses found out about the idol from God, while he was still up on Mt. Sinai.  
The Rabbi pointed out that the way it was phrased (...what YOUR PEOPLE have done...) was a lot like how spouses argue.  The relationship between Moses and God was that personal, familiar, and passionate.  It's a powerful picture.
What comes next is equally revealing:  God tells Moses to go away and deal with the people, because God is so very angry that he needs to be alone, because all he wants to do is destroy the Hebrews.  Incredibly, Moses is the one to calm him down.  Moses points out that God had just brought the people out of Egypt, and that it wouldn't make sense to kill them now, because what would the Egyptians think?  God agrees to give them another chance, the Hebrews live on, and God...apologizes.
This brings up a terrifically interesting issue: if God did something that requires an apology, then does that mean he can make mistakes?  The Rabbi says that there are midrashim that say, yes, God is falliable.  And since God isn't perfect, he likewise does not expect perfection from us.  What he wants is for us to follow the laws as best we can, and admit when we've done wrong.  

It's beautifully freeing, especially for me, being a perfectionist...from a Christian tradition that always felt like it demanded absolute perfection in order to be worthy.  I know I'm not the only one who felt that way; when I was in high school, there was a huge problem with eating disorders among the high school youth group.

Service 2-16-2008

We talked about the menorah which God commanded the Hebrews to make on Mt. Sinai.
It was supposed to be put on display outside the meeting tent.  That's interesting, because you'd expect a holy object to be kept safely inside.  It was also supposed to be built to a very specific design, and probably looked a lot like a gold tree.  A 100 pound gold tree.
The Rabbi wasn't there, but the lovely woman who was leading the discussion asked us to consider what that might symbolize.  We talked about the light and warmth, and how that would be a natural gathering place for the community.
She also asked us to consider what the significance of the light might be.  She brought a whole bunch of texts for us to read in order to give us ideas.  We talked about how Torah is meant to be a light unto our lives.  We talked about how fire keeps animals away, which would be a very practical thing.  I thought about how the appearance of the menorah was similar to that of a tree...and trees are like bushes...and this one was on in the burning bush, which would have been a relatively recent event.  It would have made God seem like he was very nearby, and might even speak again.

Conversion Class

We haven't been having conversion class the past couple weeks.
Yesterday, it was decided that the class would disband in favor of individualized instruction.  This is probably a very good thing, because as it stands, there are three candidates (including myself), and we're all very different.  One is converting in order to start a Jewish family, and it's a very beautiful thing.  The other seems to be more interested in the etherial, whereas I'm a bit more practical and philosophical, I think.

Now, we will be meeting with the Rabbi on an individual basis, once per month.  Because of this, the study will have to be much more independent, and I will try very hard to make more frequent updates.  I will also be more diligent in writing about the services I attend.  I know I've said it before, but I really mean it this time.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Conversion Class

Again, I was the only student in attendance, so it was just me, the Rabbi, and our songleader meeting in the Rabbi's office.  If it stays like this, I think I'll like it.  The discussion has been very informal, with the Rabbi quizzing me about the week's topic to figure out how much I already know, and then we talk about the rest of what I need to learn.  And then we talk about other things.

Today's talk was about Purim, which is a celebration of the Jews' victory over the evil Haman.  Except for it may not have ever happened...  The story goes that the King of Persia, needed a wife, so naturally, he held a beauty contest.  He found a very beautiful woman named Esther, who just happened to be Jewish.  She didn't tell her husband that she was Jewish, on the advise of Mordecai, as there was a lot of persecution of the Jews going on in Persia at the time.  Eventually, Haman asks the King to order that all Jews should be killed.  The King goes along with this, and Esther and Mordecai have a problem with that idea.  So Mordecai talks to Esther, and convinces her that she's in a position to save the Jewish people, as long as she risks her life by revealing her true identity to her husband.  She does this, and the King gives a very illogical answer: that he cannot reverse his original decree; he can only order that the Jews have the right to defend themselves.  Esther and the king also host a dinner and invite Haman.  They get him drunk, and then they kill him, as well as all of his sons.  After that, the army goes out after the Jews, and they fight back, and there's a bloodbath, with thousands of Persians dying left and right.  

The Jews survived, so now we eat and drink to celebrate.  And since Haman was brought down with a plan devised by a woman, we mock him roundly.  Every year on Purim, the book of Esther is read to the congregation.  Every time Haman is mentioned, the crowd is supposed to blot out his name by booing, stomping, or using noisemakers.  My Rabbi likes to have people cheer when Esther's name comes up.  
Another Purim tradition is that everybody dresses up in costumes.  Some congregations only dress up the children.  Others restrict the costume choices to characters from the story.  Our Rabbi likes to have everybody dress up, and they should wear whatever they want.  He said that he's gone as a Renaissance figure, a Star Wars character...lots of things.  Some Jewish families also use Purim as an alternative to Halloween.
A vital part of the Purim celebration is eating and especially drinking.  Lots of drinking.  It is said that we should drink until we can't tell the difference between "arur Haman" and "baruch Mordecai", which mean "cursed is Haman" and "blessed is Mordecai", respectively.  That's pretty drunk.   It's a day of merrymaking and mockery, and it's kind of like a Jewish Mardi Gras...back in the day when Mardi Gras wasn't about pure debauchery.
Purim is also the only Jewish holiday which prescribes gift-giving.  Traditionally, food-gifts are given to friends and family, and money and food is given to charity.  It's a mitzvah to give those gifts.