Sunday, February 7, 2016

What do you say to a child when they ask, "What happens after I die?"

I began this article from a memory with my daughter when she was a child herself. I believe this is an important and eternal question that all people have to confront at various ages in life. This is an issue where there is not a clear cut answer. It is a gray issue. Sometimes we find ourselves in the gray zone when it comes to thorny issues of religion and mortality. Tell me what you think.
Rabbi Bloom

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Turn off your cell phones when you go into public worship!

My most recent newspaper column is about cell phones in public worship. Haven't had enough of them going off in the middle of services? When will folks learn to be more respectful? Take a look and read more about it. Your reaction is greatly appreciated. Shalom,

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Torah Portion of the Week: Exodus Vaera. The Torah teaches about the strategy of negotiations between Pharaoh and Moses,

We are living in a time of great negotiations. We have watched with anxiety recent negotiations between the United States and its allies with Iran over nuclear weapons. The president recently concluded negotiations over climate control with the world’s nations. Just getting combatant nations in the middle east together to discuss a cessation of hostilities in Syria seems like an impossible task. Then there was the Asian Pacific Trade Agreement. European nations negotiated with Greece over its debt to the EU, and, finally, the negotiations within the EU over how to handle the flow of refugees into Europe from war torn Middle Eastern Countries. Negotiators will tell us that getting to an agreement sometimes requires divine intervention. 

The Torah portion this week narrates a classic case of negotiations between Pharaoh and God’s instruments of his divine will Moses and Aaron. The portion consists of a kind of record, in Scriptural terms, of the negotiations under which Moses compels Pharaoh to release the children of Israel from their 400 year bondage and Pharaoh becomes increasingly embittered and fearful of the consequences of the plagues brought down upon Egypt. What is fascinating about this account is how the Torah describes each party’s part in the negotiations, God establishes his credentials with Moses and Aaron as the same God who promised to their people’s ancestral patriarchs the land of Canaan. Then God was known as El Shaddai or God Almighty. Now God tells Moses and Aaron that God’s name is Adonai. 

Moses shares his trepidations that the Israelites might not believe in him since he is a man of uncircumcised lip or most likely a speech defect. When it comes to Pharaoh, we have the most interesting person in this narrative.The Torah shows his public side as the God figure of Egypt. Yet the text says several times that God hardens the heart of Pharaoh which is a metaphor that he becomes more stubborn and self destructive each time that Moses demonstrates his God given powers to bring forth plagues. Privately Pharaoh sees that strength and fears it. While his heart is hardened with pride and his belief in his own infallibility, he can see the superior power of Moses’ God and the mighty plagues which his own magicians cannot overcome.

Pharaoh says to Moses and Aaron, “I have sinned this time; the lord is righteous and I and my people are wicked.” Even though he knows he is on the wrong side and that the Israelite God is God and that he has been the cause of great suffering on his people, he cannot let go of his pride or his position of power. He says, “I have sinned.” We can feel Pharaoh’s inner conflict which comprises the unresolved crisis of confidence, faith and real politick. He knows that if he gives in it will be viewed as a sign of great weakness. So he is, in a sense, boxed in politically.There is no other way for this story to work out except for the devastating final plague of the death of the first  born. That plague and all the rest of the plagues gave him enough cover to send them free in order to protect Egypt. 

That is what always makes a negotiation difficult. It is about contending with those who are watching for the symbolic victory and for the show of strength. There are hard liners on all sides pressuring the negotiators to get the deal that gives them the victory. The idea of win-win is a defeat for the hardliners. Furthermore the Torah tells us that personal issues always play a role in a negotiation. The character of one party and the individual integrity of the parties is always an important component.

Today the art of compromise or as some experts call it ‘getting to yes,’ is the standard goal in business or intra government negotiations. Yet beneath it all it is about personal issues. It is never just business. The personal element of how to negotiate and who has the leverage interweaves with the negotiator’s personality and with the business of the negotiations. Pharaoh taught us that lesson. Even at Temple or in other non-profit volunteer institutions conflicts arise that call for negotiated settlements. There too pride and hardened hearts can exacerbate long time relationships and impact the future of the institution itself.
This month, for example,  we shall commemorate Martin Luther King’s life and there too we see a similar kind of power negotiation that the civil rights movement engaged in with local and state authorities, particularly but not exclusively in the South. Entrenched power circles do not give up power even when they know that what they are doing is wrong. That is the same lesson from Pharaoh.   We know that Moses is afraid that he is not a worthy spokesperson for his people or for God, yet, he follows his orders. His effectiveness is that stays on track and is true to his principles. He knows he is God’s instrument and this negotiation is not about him as compared to Pharaoh who believes it is only about him!

Pharaoh’s main problem is his internal struggle to always be infallible or be right all the time. His public dilemma is playing to his constituents. In that way he is a captive of his own fears. Do not think for a moment that world leaders do not contend with the same internal or personal demons when they sit down at  the negotiation table with other world leaders. 
Life is not that different with negotiations even in the life of a temple or non-profit organization. As I have said about Temple, “it is always personal.” Yet, I believe that the story of this negotiation teaches us that conflict resolution demands that we take the moral high ground if we want to secure a long term solution to a problem. Conflict resolution means remembering why we are involved in a discussion. Furthermore staying focused on the  real purpose of  trying to resolve a conflict is key in balancing the short term and longterm objectives. 
This is why Moses succeed and why Pharaoh failed. The other  lesson is that it does make a difference to have God on our sides after all!

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Prayer and what to do about Middle East Refugees

Here is a recent newspaper column about the spiritual dilemma regarding what to do about the refugees. I know it is political issue. There is a spiritual dimension to this vexing issue. I'll be interested in reading your comments.

Thanks and may 2016 be a happy and healthy one for us all.
Rabbi Brad Bloom

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Commentary or Davar Torah on the The Torah Portion. Vayigah the story of Joseph

I have met many people during my rabbinate who have gone through all sorts of traumas in their lives and came out of those experiences with new outlooks on life. I am talking about loss of a loved one, illnesses, business and career reversals, criminal actions with incarceration, family break ups and the list is endless. Some emerge actually stronger and wiser while others never recover.  How do those who find the spiritual high ground and are able to move forward call upon God and claim divine providence as a reason for finding stability and peace in their lives.
Why is that so?
We see this exact phenomenon with the story of Joseph when he reveals himself to his brothers in this week’s parash Vayigash. Joseph can no longer hold back his true identity before his brothers. He says, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” Clearly he has no intention of taking revenge. He is, rather, conciliatory and calls upon his brothers to approach him. Surely they are fearful of the shock and awe of seeing their brother whom they believed after all these years was dead. Instead of releasing anger he comforts them when he says, “Be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves that you sold me here;  for god did send me before you to preserve life”(44:5).He tells them that he would relieve them of the famine in Canaan. He then concludes by saying, “And God sent me before you to preserve  for you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance”(44:7).

Joseph has transformed and reinvented himself from the brash teenager to the righteous man who sees a much bigger picture of his life’s purpose. This story is one of the great narratives in the Bible and in Western Literature to demonstrate the power of reconciliation. He has never abandoned his family and his faith through all the dramas and suffering he endured along with the mystifying story of his rise from slave to becoming second in command to Pharaoh in Egypt.

Not only could we ask how did he hold on to ancestral faith and resist the inevitable temptation to exact revenge upon them? We can also ask how does anyone who has survived a trauma find the wherewithal to rise above the basest of human emotions? How does anyone find it within themselves to get over the pain and see that they have hope and strength to carry on?

Spiritual recovery calls upon us to choose the pathway of  healing rather than perennial anger. Living with that kind of lifelong daily anger leads to self destruction. Releasing anger is one of the hardest things to do in life because the hurt stays with us every day. Turning the hurt into a sense of redemption and insight gives us a chance to find inner peace. Substance abuse patients, for example, often times find that healing by attending twelve step programs. They learn how to embrace the suffering so that they can transcend it.

How many times do we see people volunteer in causes that stem from the previous hurts they have experienced. Their devotion to those causes gives them the peace they yearn for in their lives. Joseph saw this when he twice referred to himself as a preserver of life. He does that for Egypt by storing the grain and saves the nation from its own famine down the road. He believes his mission is to help those in need. His faith in God becomes his pathway to reconcile the pain of abandonment by his family.Is his decision to welcome them a moral question or is it a spiritual quest for shalom of the heart?

One more piece to this question of why Joseph attributes his success and forgiveness to God goes back to the intellectual side rather than the spiritual. From modern eyes it appears that Joseph is saying that God’s providence was in part responsible for the outcome of Joseph’s journey and prominence in the court of Pharaoh. For Joseph giving God the credit is part of the humility of Joseph.  Do we believe that God led him down that path? Was Joseph the one who determined his own course or was he walking the pathway that God set up for him? Are we in charge of our own lives or does God work mysteriously behind the scenes? Modern Jews struggle with the idea because secular knowledge reminds us that what happens to us is based upon our own actions or accident. We accept the notion that freedom of will explains what happens. We recognize that accidents happen or coincidences occur but typically most of us do not go as far as saying God determines the outcome of our lives.

My own view is that when Joseph says God led him to this moment it is not accepting the philosopher’s view of Providence or freedom of will. The language demonstrates that he sees his life in broader terms than the here and now. It is about a deeper question. Religion is all about asking fundamental questions about existence; “What is my purpose in life?” Do we not all ask that question at times?

Joseph is not the philosopher. He is the righteous man. He is the man of faith. He walks the line many of us walk. It is a line that we straddle between living life and making sense of it. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

An unforgettable night of ecumenicism in Hilton Head-The Journey towards Friendship

Last Thursday our congregation along with the Holy Family Catholic Congregation met together in  journey towards friendship. Our two choirs performed selections from the Psalms. Beth Yam's children's ensemble lit the Hanukkah lights and sang songs. Our featured speaker was Rabbi Dr. Shira Lander from Southern Methodist University. in Dallas. It was an unforgettable night. Over 400 people from our respective congregations and throughout the community attended. There is a message in this turnout which is that people want to interact on a religious level with other religions. They are not afraid to learn and celebrate each other's traditions. People will open their hearts. We honored the 50th anniversary of Nostra Atate "In our time," the famous documents signed in December of 1965 which opened the Catholic Church to the world of ecumenicism and repudiated the age old accusation of deicide against the Jewish people. The article I wrote in my column speaks to the issue of the desperate need for ecumenicism today.

Hanukkah Sameah Happy Hanukkah!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Jewish life in the low country.

I wrote this newspaper column about a week ago from my trip to the Union of Reform Judaism Biennial Convention in Orlando, Florida. Have a good read and tell me what you think?