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Unstuck – Rosh Hashanah 5779

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In San Jose, California, there is a small museum set in a beautiful garden; the front of the building is guarded by an army of ram-headed lion sphinxes similar to those found in ancient Thebes. It is the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, and inside there is a replica of an Egyptian tomb which you enter down a dimly-lit flight of faux rock stairs, designed to create the illusion that you are climbing down into an ancient pyramid, not a museum basement.
Life after death was a paramount concern of the ancient Egyptians, and the tomb is a testament to all the measures they determined one could take to ensure a happy afterlife. The ancient Egyptians believed that whatever you depicted in your tomb would come true after your death, so every luxury imaginable was either placed in the tomb or painted on the walls. 
The main room of the tomb was painted with a mural of the Egyptian Book of the Dead and depicted what the afterlife of the deceased pharaoh would look like. Each wall portrayed a differen…

Science, Creation and Paper Midrash at URJ Sci-Tech

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When Isaac stood up and ripped a page right out of the comic book, he was met with gasps and expressions of horror. But that was the plan — after all, we were explaining to the campers at URJ Six Points Sci Tech West how they were going to destroy comic books to create their own paper midrash.
We spent several days last week with the campers at at the newest URJ Summer Camp - Sci Tech West, talking about Torah and midrash and creation, and teaching them how to use cut-up comic books to make new works of art.
One of the first things we did with the campers was ask them who their favorite heroes were. We were met with answers ranging from “which universe, Marvel or DC?” to Einstein and Darwin — superheroes of science. We weren’t surprised, because it’s a science camp, after all. That’s one of the reasons we focused on the story of creation for our midrash workshop; it’s often a flashpoint in debates about teaching science in schools, and it was an opportunity to explore how the science of…

All Hands on Deck - Fingerprint Mosaics at Camp Newman

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This summer at Camp Newman Isaac and I were asked by Rabbi Allie Fischman to help create some new tallitot (prayer shawls) to be used when the counselors bless their campers on Friday nights. We were tasked with finding a way for each eidah (session) to work together to create a single tallit, at the same time giving each camper and counselor a chance to contribute in a personal way.

The challenge was that the groups ranged in size from 30 people to 120 people. How could we find a meaningful way for each participant to be a part of a large group project? And all in an hour-long evening program?

We decided to create fingerprint mosaics, where each camper had a chance to add their personal mark to the tallit and, ultimately, create a work of art that was not just for those campers, but would be enjoyed by everyone. The idea was that fingerprints are personal, but combined together they create a mosaic-like pattern, creating a communal work rather than an individual one — and that it woul…

Shavuot: Our Origin Story

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Superman is the last son of dead planet, raised by salt-of-the-earth parents who taught him to use his power to help others, in support of “truth, justice, and the American way.”
Wonder Woman lived her entire life on an island of peace and prosperity; learning of the injustice and imbalance in the larger world she commits herself to being an ambassador of peace and defender of the weak.
Spider-Man is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains the proportional strength and abilities of a spider; he chooses to be a super hero because of the lesson from his uncle that “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt and in fear for their lives, the children of Israel escape their bondage and travel to a mysterious desert mountain, where they are gifted with a moral code and a mission: to be a holy people.
On Shavuot we celebrate the revelation of the Torah, and our acceptance of our unique destiny. On Passover we reenact our liberation from slavery, but on Shavuot we…

When It's Time to Stop Praying and Start Marching.

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This past weekend many of us took to the streets with our communities to “March For Our Lives,” and this week we welcome the festival of Passover, which makes it a good time to remember that the Torah tells us “thoughts and prayers” can only do so much; we need action to move forward.
In Exodus 14 we read that when the Israelites were stopped at the shore of the Sea of Reeds with the Egyptians fast approaching behind them, Moses began to pray. The people were distressed and feared for their lives and were demanding action — and Moses offered prayers. God said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. Lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground.” The Torah is pretty clear that there is a time for words, but when trapped between the Egyptians and the Sea, it’s time for action.
Our sages expanded on this idea in the Talmud, which teaches us that as the Jews were standing at the s…

The Four Children of Metropolis

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Four times the Torah tells us to teach our children about the redemption from Egypt, and from this comes a midrash that there must be four types of children who each learn in a different way. That midrash has become part of the Haggadah; every year we talk about these four types of children: the Wise One, the Wicked One, the Simple One and The One Who Does Not Know How to Ask.

Today that sounds like an internet quiz: “Answer these four questions and we can tell you which child from the Haggadah you are!”
Pop culture can give us new ways to connect to our tradition. The main characters in Superman, when taken together, can give us new insight into the four types of learners that our midrash teaches about. 
The Wise One Lois Lane is the wise child. She is an investigative reporter, whose job requires a depth of knowledge and ability beyond the average citizen… but which also requires her to constantly ask questions in hopes of finding deeper meaning. Lois wants more – she actively seeks out…

How to approach life - a Dvar Torah on Vayigash for Limmud

How do you approach life?
After Joseph imprisons Benjamin his brothers come to plead for his release, Parashat Vayigash begins when Judah approaches Joseph. The midrash wonders why Judah “approaches” — he is already there in the room, having a conversation with Joseph. In Bresheit Rabbah the sages suggest different reasons for the use of the verb “vayigash” (he approached).
Rabbi Yehudah said it implies an approach to battle, as in 2 Samuel 10:13: “So Yoav and the people that were with him approached for battle.”
Rabbi Nechemiah said it implies coming near for conciliation, as in Joshua 14:6: “Then the children of Judah approached Joshua.”
Others said it implies coming near for prayer, as in 1 Kings 18:36: “And it came to pass at the time of the evening offering, that Elijah the prophet approached.”
Rabbi Eleazar combined all these views, saying that Judah approached Joseph for all three. He imagined Judah saying to himself, “I’m here, whether it is for battle, for placating, or prayer. Wh…