Thursday, December 29, 2005

Parshat Miketz

Miketz 05
Who here has not woken one morning, head filled with a dream from the night before, thinking, "What a horrible dream," and just shuddered a bit, with a creeping superstitious feeling, hoping that it wouldn't come true. Throughout history, humans have shuddered or delighted in the visions that our minds have given us at night. And throughout history, humans hav believed in the power of dreams, that dreams hold the power to unlock the future for us.
The rabbis, too, stated that a dream is 1/60th of prophecy. The Torah portion of Miketz is enthralled with dreams. Pharaoh dreams of cows and and grain, and he sought someone to interpret his dreams for him. Strangely, though, even though he sent for all the magicians and wise men of Egypt, no one could help him, until the head cupbearer remembered the young servant who had correctly interpreted his dream and that of the head baker years before. Joseph is summoned and sure enough, does provide a dream interpretation that proves later to be perfectly correct.
In light of this, it is somewhat interesting to note that in a chapter of the talmud in which the rabbis extensively discuss dream interpretation, the end conclusion they give is that in fact, dreams are, as they are interpreted.
The midrash tells the story of
Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LXXXIX:8
A certain woman who went to R. Eliezer and said to him: ' I saw in a dream how that the loft of the upper storey of my house was split open.’ ‘You will conceive a son,’ he told her. She went away and it happened even so. Again she dreamed the same and came and told it to R. Eliezer, who gave her the same interpretation, and it happened even so. She dreamed this a third time and repaired to him but did not find him, so she told his disciples, ' I saw in a dream that the loft of the upper storey of my house was split open.’ ‘You will bury your husband,’ they told her, and this did happen. R. Eliezer, hearing a cry of wailing, asked what was amiss, whereupon they related to him what had occurred. ‘You have killed the man,’ he upbraided them; is it not written, AND IT CAME TO PASS, AS HE INTERPRETED TO US, SO IT WAS?
R. Johanan said: All dreams are dependent on the interpretation given to them, save a dream about wine. Sometimes a dream of drinking wine augurs well, and sometimes it betokens misfortune. When a scholar drinks [in a dream], it is a good augury; when an ignoramus drinks, it betokens misfortune.
Rabbi Yochanan's statement is an interesting response. It suggests that a dream interpretation is more natural than the sages stattement that it is 1/60th prophecy would seem to suggest: one whose life is in general in good order, one might expect to have a good outcome, whether or not they had a dream about it. Someone whose life is not so together, one might predict a negative future. But in fact, if this is how we understand the rabbi's views on dreams we would be very mistaken.In fact, what the rabbis man is that speaking the dream makes it happen, even if the speaker is completely without knowledge of the circumstances of the dreamer.
A key tothe rabbinic view of dreams can be found in the portion itself. When Pharaoh tlls Joseph I dreamt a ream, but there is no one who could interpret it; I heard it said about you that if you hear a dream you are able to interpret it," Jospeh responds (Ber. 41:16):
áÌÄìÀòÈãÈé àÁìÉäÄéí éÇÍòÂðÆä àÆúÎùÑÀìåÉí ôÌÇøÀòÍÉä:
"That is beyond me [to interpret a dream]; God will answer for pharaoh's welfare."
That is, unlike the students of our story whose interpretation killed a person, Joseph made himself transparent in a way; a window for God to be seen through.
There is a saying of the rabbis that appears in the talmud:
Yevamot 49b
ëãúðéà: ëì äðáéàéí ðñúëìå áàñô÷ìøéà ùàéðä îàéøä, îùä øáéðå ðñúëì áàñô÷ìøéà äîàéøä
All the prophets looked into a dim glass, but Moshe rabeinu looked into a clear glass.
Why would we say that the prophets only saw God through a dim glass? So often when we seek God, we see God only through the lens of -ourselves. IN fact, instead of seeing God, we see ourselves: we make of our religoin a mirror. We do what we wnt and hear what we wish for. The prophets were better at this than most of us - they were able to scrape a little of the silver off the mirror and see through to God's wishes of us, but still, one can see by the different tones of the prophets, that they, too, revealed themselvs through their prophey evn as they were revealing God to us. But when Moshe sought to reveal God in the world, he made of himself a clear glass, one through which not his wishes, but God's, came through - at least most of the time. Even Moshe, after all, wasn't perfect.
In Isaiah 59:21 which appears at the end of the weekday morning service,
it says:
As for me, this is my covenant with them, says the Lord; My spirit that is upon you, and my words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your seed, nor from the mouth of your seed’s seed, says the Lord, from now on and forever.
God promises Israel that we and our children will always have the power of prophecy. Now you may think that this has turned out not to be true, not withstanding bubbe's uncanny ability to call when one of her grandchildren have broken a leg or dinged the car on the last trip out. But if we think about Jospeh's response, perhaps we might come to a different conclusion.
It's true that none of us are Moses. We're mostly - especially today when we're accustomed to living however we wish and thinking that whatever we wish must be the right thing- unable to put ourselves aside to make a clear glass for God's will. But God doesn't expect that of us, anyway. God doesn't ask, why weren't you Moshe rabeniu, God asks us, why weren't you, you?
But while we my not be able to be a clear glass, we o hav the capability of avoiding being the mirror, inwhic we see only ourselves, when we look for God.
While perhaps we don't have the power to make our dreams come true through interpretation, we have something almost as good, the power to make our lives be true through the power of making them a window for God.
When Jospeh told pharaoh that he didn't hve the power or wisdom to interpret dreams, he took himself out of the mirror, and made a little space for God to act in the world. Thus through him, thw beginning of Israel's destiny to come down into Egypt so that we could be redeemed and made holy at Sinai began. Who knows what our dreams may hold, if we open our minds to God?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Parshat Vayeishev

Vayeishev 05
In the talmud, we read a story about one of the rabbis and his wife:
Ketubot 67b
Mar ‘Ukba had a poor man in his neighbourhood into whose doorstep he used to throw money every day. Once [the poor man] thought: ‘I will go and see who does me this kindness’. On that day [it happened] that Mar ‘Ukba was late at the house of study and his wife was coming home with him. As soon as [the poor man] saw them moving the door he went out after them, but they fled from him and ran into a furnace from which the fire had just been swept. Mar ‘Ukba's feet were burning and his wife said to him: Raise your feet and put them on mine. As he was upset, she said to him, ‘I am usually at home so the poor have easy access to me; while you give money to the poor which they must then go and buy food with, I cook food for them which they can eat right away, thus my merit is greater than yours.". And what [was the reason for] all that? — ... Better had a man thrown himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbour to shame. Whence do we derive this? From [the action of] Tamar; for it is written in Scripture, When she was brought forth, [she sent to her father-in-law].
The story of Yehudah and Tamar is a strange interlude in the otherwise unbroken story of Joseph. Judah's son Er, has married a woman, but God becomes angry with him and he dies. Through levirate marriage, his brother, Onan ought to marry Tamar to produce an heir, but because he dislikes the idea of his own child being an heir to someone else, he spills his seed on the ground to prevent Tamar from conceiving. This annoys God, and he dies as well. Tamar is now beside herself: the youngest son, ought to now be married to her, but Judah is worried that Tamar is a sort of black widow, and doesn't really want her to marry him, so he puts her off. Tamar, after some years, seeing that Judah has no intention of giving her his last son, takes matters into her own hands, seducing Judah by the roadside, taking only a few markers to prove that he was the one who was with her. When she became pregnant, Judah is outraged, and allows her to be condemned to death, yet she sends to him the possessions that she had taken from him as collateral for his payment of the woman he supposed was a prostitute, and asks him if he knows whose they are. He recognizes them, and acknowledges them, saving her life, and admits, to boot, that she is more righteous than he for taking matters into her hands to produce an heir for his son.
Many of our commmentators have asked why this interlude was dropped into the middle of our portion, and what is it about? The midrash explains that we can take two lessons from the story of Tamar and Yehudah.
The first is that it is better to burn alive than to shame another human being. The second is that God returns what we do to one another midah kneged midah - measure for measure:
The midrash suggests that it is because of Yehuda's dying the coat of Yosef in goat's blood to fool his father into thinking that Yosef was dead that Tamar used the expression "Recognize" that she used when presenting Yehuda's signet and cloak to him to save herself from being burnt to death.
According to the midrash:
Beresheit Rabbah 85:11
[Tamar] SENT TO HER FATHER-IN-LAW, SAYING: BY THE MAN, WHOSE THESE ARE, AM I WITH CHILD. He wished to deny it, whereupon she said to him: ‘Acknowledge thy Creator in these, for they are thine and thy Creator's.’ RECOGNIZE, I PRAY THEE, WHOSE ARE THESE, THE SIGNET, etc. R. Johanan said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Judah: ‘Thou didst say to thy father, [Do you]Recognize[ this garment?] [know] I pray thee (Gen. XXXVII, 32); as thou livest, Tamar will say to thee, RECOGNIZE, I PRAY THEE.
Midrash tanchuma also connects this measure for measure punishment more directly, saying that the reason that Yehuda's son Er died, it was God saying to Yehuda, "When you showed your father Yosef's garmnt dipped in blood, you did not take into consideration the pain that a father feels at the loss of a child. You too, will lose your wife and bury your children, to experience the pain of losing children.
Thus when Tamar said to Yehuda, "Recognize these please," he experienced the shock of recognition for his past sins in selling off Yosef and letting his father think that Yosef was dead.
In fact, the Talmud hammers at this point with another passage about King David.
Baba Metzia 59a
Better it is for man to cohabit with a doubtful married woman rather than that he should publicly shame his neighbour. Whence do we know this? ...David exclaimed before the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! You know full well that had they torn my flesh, my blood would not have poured forth to the earth. Moreover, when they are engaged in studying "Leprosies" and "Tents" they jeer at me, saying, "David! what is the death penalty of him who seduces a married woman?" I reply to them, "He is executed by strangulation, yet has he a portion in the world to come. But he who publicly puts his neighbour to shame has no portion in the world to come."
King David underscores that one who shames another is among the worst of sinners. But the reverse is true as well. One who honors other human beings by taking extra care not to shame them is honored.
And so the Talmud rewrites the story so that we understand that the true ending of the story is Judah recognizing Tamar's righteousness, but also that Judah's public acknowledgement of Tamar's righteousness - thus restoring her honor- in turn restores him in God's eyes.
Sotah 10b
...Better for a man to cast himself into a fiery furnace rather than shame his fellow in public. Whence is this? From Tamar.
Discern, I pray thee. R. Hama b. Hanina said: With the word ‘discern’ [Judah] made an announcement to his father, and with the word ‘discern’ an announcement was made to him. With the word ‘discern’ he made an announcement — Discern now whether it be thy son's coat or not; and with the word ‘discern’ an announcement was made to him — Discern, I pray thee, whose are these. The word ‘na’ [‘I pray thee’] is nothing else than an expression of request. She said to him, ‘I beg of thee, discern the face of thy Creator and hide not thine eyes from me’.
And Judah acknowledged them, and said: She is more righteous than I. ...
And so why do we find this story in the midst of the story of Joseph? The two themes of measure for measure and honoring one's fellow humans mirror each other.
It is said that refraining from evil speech is the hardest of the mitzvot.
Speaking ill of others - even when one tells the truth, which is what we call lashon hara, let alone when it is false - motsi shem ra - literally giving another a bad name- together in the category of evil speech, they are shaming a human being and are considered akin to murder. The rabbis call it whitening of the face. Literally, think of what happens when you embarrass someone - sometimes they blush, but when you really humiliate someone, if you've ever seen this, humiliation causes the blood to drain from a person's face, and they look, momentarily, like a corpse drained of blood.
So actually, these two themes are really one: we are looking at a story in which we are dealing with words that cause utter disruption. The point of the story of Joseph being paired with that of Judah and Tamar is to tell us that speech is not idle: ones' words lead to action. Lashon haRa, evil speech, like the musings of the brothers on how much they hate Joseph, leads them to commit an action that only narrowly avoids being murder outright. Conversely, Tamar's incredible bravery and refusal to engage in lashon hara even at the expense of her own life, brings not only honor to her, but forgiveness to another. Judah sees her righteousness and publicly admits it.When this happens, he is himself forgiven of his own sins, and it is at that moment when he truly becomes an adult. Of the twelve brothers, although Joseph is the more or less prodigal son, it is the descendants of Judah who recieve the honor of having a a kingdom named for him.
And why is Judah given the opportunity for such a glorious repentance? Remember that it was he who saved Joseph from death - through the power of his words. He was the one who suggested that there was no profit in murder, and suggested selling him to the Ishmaelite caravaners. Okay, this is perhaps not the greatest act of heroism that we have ever encountered, but it is the mark of at least an ability for rational thought to overcome pure hatred.
And so we're meant to be left with a message: even the smallest act can be returned to one. Our language is not empty. Every word is full of meaning, as full of meaning as a dream. In tractate brachot of the talmud, there is a very lengthy story about two rabbis. One was sort of a cheapskate, and he and this other rabbi had a dream - in fact they both had the same dream. Each in turn went to a dream interpreter, who offered them a meaning. The one who paid well, he gave a wonderful interpretation to, and for the cheap rabbi, he interpreted the dreams as full of horror and terrible outcomes. Both of these rabbis came back to the interpreter having had identical dreams for many nights running, yet the interpreter continued to give them differing interpretations.
Finally, after the cheap rabbi had been bereft of his business, his family and his health, he discovered a book of interpretation which suggested that dreams come true according to how they are interpreted. That is to say: if the dream interpreter had given him a positive outcome for his dreams, his family would still be living and healthy, his job still safe and his health still good. His response was to forgive the interpreter of everything except the death of his wife, for which I cannot blame him.
But the talmud's point is particularly meaningful in the story of Joseph, which is also full of dreams and their interpretations. Speech is a powerful tool, and a holy one: after all, God spoke, and the world was created.
Too, when we speak, worlds are created, and so it is especially important for our speech to be holy. Not just in shul when we come and speak the words of prayer to God, but at at every moment, our words create worlds, our interpretations make people's lives better, or disastrous. Our visions can build lives or destroy them. And it is up to us to make sure that we pay atttention to the words we speak, so that our words may lay the path to redeem us from exile, not to sell us into slavery.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Parshat Vayera

Vayeira 05

The midrash asks

Why was Sarah granted a son only in her old age, after she had nearly despaired of having
a child? It was to be a lesson for future times; a sign for all coming generations. If anyone
should give up hope that God will ever rebuild Jerusalem, he would be told, " äÇáÌÄéèåÌ
àÆìÎàÇáÀøÈäÈí àÂáÄéëÆí åÀàÆìÎùÈÉøÈä úÌÀçÍåÉìÆìÀëÆí ëÌÄÍéÎàÆçÈã ÷ÀøÈàúÄéå åÇÍàÂáÈøÀëÅäåÌ åÀàÇøÀáÌÅÍäåÌ:
Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you (Isaiah 51:2). As God
rejuvenated Sarah in her old age, giving her children, thus will God do to Jerusalem. God
will bring about its redemption in a supernatural manner.
The British war time prime minister, Winston Churchill invited the Hasidic Rabbi of Gur
to come and see him and advise him on how to bring about Germany's downfall. The
Rabbi gave the following reply: "There are two possible ways, one involving natural
means and one involving supernatural. The natural means would be if a million angels
with flaming swords were to descend on Germany and destroy it. The supernatural would
be if a million Englishman parachuted down on Germany and destroyed it." (Hasidic
Tales of the Holocaust by Yaffa Eliach)
I will say with perhaps just a touch of postmodern irony, that today we might be more
likely to reverse the midrash and say, if anyone should ever give up hope that Abraham
and Sarah were real, that Israel's soul was built by our ancestors whom we read about,
should desire to look to Abraham your father and Sarah who bore you, look to Jerusalem,
whose shining walls, in which we again hear the voice of the groom and bride and the
youths in the street, look to the redemption which has already begun, in the most
supernatural way one could imagine.

Similarly, Midrash rabbah offers an interpretation of Sarah's gving birth:
Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LIII:1

that Scripture writes, And all the trees of the field shall know that I the Lord have brought
down the high tree, have exalted the low tree, have dried up the green tree, and have made
the dry tree to flourish; I the Lord have spoken and done it (Ezek. XVII, 24). AND THE
LORD DID UNTO SARAH AS HE HAD SPOKEN. ‘And all the trees of the field shall
know’ refers to the people, as you read, For the tree of the field is man (Deut. XX, 19)1 '
‘And [I] have made the dry tree to flourish’ alludes to Sarah. ‘

These verses from Ezekiel refer to the blossoming of Jerusalem as well, that Zion shall
be rejuvenated. But it isn't simply that Jerusalem has been rebuilt, but that there is still
work to be done: it is not enough for a miracle to happen, but as we know from
Chanukah, it's a requirment that the miracle be publicized.
Of coure, everyone knows that Jerusalem has been reborn, but how many people think of
it as a miracle - even among Jews?
But I want to focus on two instances of laughter, both from Sarah.

è åÇéÌÉàÍîÀøåÌ àÅìÈéå àÇéÌÅä ùÈÉøÈä àÄùÑÀúÌÆêÈ åÇéÌÉàîÆø äÄðÌÅä áÈàÍÉäÆì: é åÇéÌÉàîÆø ùÑåÉá àÈùÑåÌá àÅìÆéêÈ ëÌÈòÅú
çÇéÌÈä åÀäÄðÌÅäÎáÅï ìÀùÈÉøÈä àÄùÑÀúÌÆêÈ åÀùÈÉøÈä ùÑÉîÇòÇú ôÌÆúÇÍç äÈàÉäÆì åÀäåÌà àÇÍçÂøÈÍéå: éà åÀàÇáÀøÈäÈí åÀùÈÉøÈä
æÀ÷ÅðÄéí áÌÈàÄéí áÌÇéÌÈîÄéí çÈãÇì ìÄäÀéåÉú ìÀùÈÉøÈä àÉøÇç ëÌÇðÌÈùÑÄÍéí: éá åÇúÌÄöÀçÇ÷ ùÈÉøÈä áÌÀ÷ÄøÀáÌÈäÌ ìÅàîÉø
àÇÍçÂøÅé áÀìÉúÄé äÈÍéÀúÈäÎìÌÄé òÆãÀðÈä åÇÍàãÉðÄé æÈ÷ÅÍï: éâ åÇéÌÉàîÆø éÀäåÉÈä àÆìÎàÇáÀøÈäÈí ìÈîÌÈä æÌÆä öÈÍçÂ÷Èä ùÈÉøÈä
ìÅàîÉø äÇàÇó àËîÀðÈí àÅìÅã åÇÍàÂðÄé æÈ÷ÇÍðÀúÌÄé: éã äÂéÄôÌÈìÅà îÅÍéäåÉÈä ãÌÈáÈø ìÇîÌåÉòÅã àÈùÑåÌá àÅìÆéêÈ ëÌÈòÅú çÇéÌÈä
åÌìÀùÈÉøÈä áÅÍï:

Beresheit 18:9. And they said to him, Where is Sarah your wife? And he said, Behold, in
the tent.
10. And he said, I will certainly return to you at this season; and, lo, Sarah your wife shall
have a son. And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him.
11. Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well advanced in age; and it had ceased to be
with Sarah after the manner of women.
12. Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am grown old shall I have
pleasure, my lord being old also?

then, later, we read:

ä åÀàÇáÀøÈäÈí áÌÆïÎîÀàÇú ùÑÈðÈä áÌÀäÄåÌÈìÆã ìåÉ àÅú éÄöÀçÈ÷ áÌÀðÍåÉ: å åÇúÌÉàîÆø ùÈÉøÈä öÀçÉ÷ òÈùÈÉä ìÄé àÁìÉäÄéí
ëÌÈìÎäÇùÌÑÉîÅòÇ éÄÍöÂçÇ÷ÎìÄÍé: æ åÇúÌÉàîÆø îÄé îÄìÌÅì ìÀàÇáÀøÈäÈí äÅéðÄé÷Èä áÈðÄéí ùÈÉøÈä ëÌÄÍéÎéÈìÇãÀúÌÄé áÅï ìÄæÀ÷ËðÈÍéå:

Beresheit 21:
3. Abraham called the name of the son that was born to/for him, that Sarah had borne
him, Yitzchak (He will laugh/laughter)
5. And Abraham was a hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born to him.
6. And Sarah said, God has made me laugh, so that all who hear will laugh with me.
7. And she said, Who would have said to Abraham, that Sarah should suckle children?
For I have born him a son in his old age.

The midrash offers interesting commentary on Sarah's laughter.

Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LIII:8

HEARS WILL REJOICE WITH ME (XXI, 6). R. Berekiah, R. Judah b. R. Simon, and R.
Hanan in the name of R. Samuel b. R. Isaac said: If Reuben has cause to rejoice, what
does it matter to Simeon? Similarly, if Sarah was remembered, what did it matter to
others? But when the matriarch Sarah was remembered [gave birth], many other barren
women were remembered with her; many deaf gained their hearing; many blind had their
eyes opened, many insane became sane. For ' making ' [HAS MADE òÈùÈä] is mentioned
here, and also elsewhere, viz. And he made a release to the provinces (Est. II, 18). As the
making mentioned there means that a gift was granted to the world,l so the making
mentioned here means that a gift was granted to the world.

The midrash asks, why should anyone othr than Sarah be happy and rejoice? It's normal
for humans that they feel happy when they themselves gain something, but not when
someone else does.
The answer that the midrash provides is that in fact, there was a reason for rejoicing, that
at the same time as Sarah gave birth, many other people were given reason to rejoice;
illnesses were cured, other women who had been barren gave birth; when Sarah was
noticed by God, the world in general received a gift.
There is another midrash that explains that the gift wasa identified by the name that their
child was given: rather than reading Yitzchak as "laughter" the rabbis read that "éöà ç÷
yatza hok" Law had gone forth to the world, a gift was made to the world.

But we know, of course, that law had not yet gone forth to the world. Although the rabbis
believed that our ancestors even prior to Sinai themselves observed the laws, even if we
accept that, certainly it had not yet gone forth to the world.
So what could this gift have been?

(Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LIII:7

I want to draw our attention to another midrash. This midrash also focuses on the later
laughter of Sarah. After Sarah says, "God has made laughter for me..." she continues,
perhaps in explanation of the statement, åÇúÌÉàîÆø îÄé îÄìÌÅì ìÀàÇáÀøÈäÈí äÅéðÄé÷Èä áÈðÄéí ùÈÉøÈä
ëÌÄÍéÎéÈìÇãÀúÌÄé áÅï ìÄæÀ÷ËðÈÍéå: "she said, 'Who would have said îÄìÌÅì milel to Abraham, that Sarah
should suckle children? For I have born him a son in his old age."
The rabbis point out that contrary to normal usage, the Torah doen't use the word amar or
diber for "said," but rather the extremely unusual word milel.

Midrash Rabbah - Genesis LIII:9

As we know, the Torah uses its words very precisely and sparingly. If it uses an unusual
word, we are meant to notice something about the statement.
The wordîìì mem lamed lamed is a word in Hebrew for speech, but it also has a number
of other meanings. It can mean to stitch together, and it can also mean to wither or fade.
In aramaic, the word is mil'la, which also means embers or gold ore.

I'd like to suggest that Sarah used this word very purposefully. When Sarah laughed for
the first time, hearing that she would give birth, she asked, " now that I am worn out, I
will have pleasure?"
Now that indeed, she has given birth she is using a word that is related to the word
éÀìÅì or éÀìÈìÈà
which means uluation - the trllling noise middle-eastern women make in times of both
joy and sorrow.
So the first of Sarah's meaings is personal: her withering: malal îÈìÇì has turned into
uluation y'lala éÀìÈìÈà .
The second meaning is universal:
God wished to give a gift to her, Sarah, but this gift was a gift for the world as well.
Sewing in many cultures was traditionally women's work, and so Sarah used a sewing
metaphor to speak of this gift to the world: God embroidered into the world a new thing:
Yitzchak - Isaac- was traditionally understood to have invented afternoon prayers -
minchah. This was drawn from next week's portion in which when Rebecca comes to
meet him for the frst time, he is out in the field having sichah - conversation or
supplication - in the late afternoon, with God. The rabbis saw Yitzchak's gift as bringing
law to the world, but although he was great, I think that perhaps this was not the gift that
he brought. The gift that Isaac brought was one of relationship with God. Remember, this
is the Isaac that was perhaps traumatized all his life by his near slaughter for God. And
yet, he was able to have a loving relationship with God. His relationship with God was
not one of testing and trial, but of calm sureness and contemplation. His relationship with
Rebebcca, too, was greater than those of either his father or his sons: he took no other
wives, and he is the first of whom we hear åÇéÌÆàÁäÈáÆäÈ vaye'ehavehah - and he loved her.
Sarah stitched Yitzchak out of her own heart. God embroidered for her a son who would
give a gift to the world: his gift was -unlike Abraham's hot fires, îÄìÀìÈà . Embers: warm,
burning, but not out of control; a campfire to warm your self by, not a forest fire that
burns everything in its path.
Today, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, the future of the people of Israel, can seem
more like fire than embers. Today we look at Israel and see the clashing fanaticisms on all
sides: not just between religions, but among them as well. Is it possible that the future of
Judaism really lies with wilfull ignoring of history and other peoples? Can it really be that
God wishes us to cut ourselves off fromt he rest of the world? I highly doubt it.. In
thinking about our future, we should indeed, "Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah
who bore you (Isaiah 51:2)" We have there two models. There is the model of Abraham's
singlemindedness. Rabbi David Hartman in his book A Heart of Many Rooms, talks
about the Akedah model of Judaism as one in which submission and surrender must be
total. But there is another mode as well, exemplified by Sarah. In this model, Judaism is
a religion of surprise and joy: the model in which laughter of incredulity and disbelief, of
one's vision of the future being bleak and even truncated, becomes laughter of hope
turned to reality.
This is Sarah's milel: withering turned to jubilation. Israel, and Judaism, too, has
these modes. Submission to God's commands is important, but it is not a whole
relationship. Abraham and Sarah are both needed for our relationship with God. There is
no Judaism without commitment to mitzvot, but therecan be no commitment to mitzvot
without the possibility of the futuree being different form the past, and joyful surprise
around every corner. When you leave here today, take on a new mitzvah. DO something
for God you've never done before; perhaps it will bring you laughter, too.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

a dream

Last night I had a very strange dream, which I happen to know simply means that I drank too much liquid before going to bed, but I think it's really funny.

I was working with a conversion student, and I waws very pleased with him, because he told me that he had been praying the Amidah (a daily prayer which most people don't actually pray every day, let alone the three times a day one ought) every other day ( remember this person wasn't even officially Jewish yet!), and I was answering some questinos about it some of the different blessings in it.

After we finished the discussion, I was walking with him to his apartment where he was going to lend me some rounds of pita bread. He was explaining to me that someone had told him I wanted the bread to go to the mikvah ( purifying waters - literally living waters - mayim chayim) with my son. I was quite indignant, since first of all, what on earth would I do with bread at a mikvah? and my son -a toddler- doens't have any reason to go the mikvah.

In any case, I was explaining to him that I just wanted the bread to make a motzi on (to say the prayer before eating a full meal, for which bread stands in as the representative of what makes something a full meal). As I was explaining this, I realized I needed to use the bathroom, so I went to find his, in his apartment.

I went in, and I was looking over the magazines stacked on the back of the toilet tank, and I noticed among a bunch of professional photographic magazines, one called This is the Torah produced by National Geographic. That was actually the point at which it occurred to me that I should shake myself to make sure that I wasn't asleep, which of course, it turns out I was, and needed to actually get up and go to the bathrom. This was rather a disappointment, as I was extremely curious what would appear in the magazine....

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The wholeness of the broken: Yom Kippur 5766

Dr. Naomi Remen tells the following story:
One of the angriest people I have ever worked with was a young man with osteogenic
sarcoma of the right leg. He had been a high school and college athlete and until the time of his diagnosis his life had been good. Beautiful women, fast cars, personal recognition. Two weeks after his diagnosis, they had removed his right leg above the knee. This surgery, which saved his life, also ended his life. Playing ball was a thing of the past.
These days there are many sorts of self-destructive behaviors open to an angry young man like this. He refused to return to school. He began to drink heavily, to use drugs, to alienate his former admirers and friends, and to have on automobile accident after another. After the second of these, his former coach called and referred him to me.
He was a powerfully built and handsome young man, profoundly self-oriented and isolated. At the beginning, he had the sort of rage that felt very familiar to me. Filled with a sense of injustice and self- pity, he hated all the well people. In our second meeting, hoping to encourage him to show his feelings about himself, I gave him a drawing pad and asked him to draw a picture of his body. he drew a crude sketch of a vase, just an outline. Runing through the center of it he drew a deep crack. he went over and over the crack with a black crayon, gritting his teeth and ripping the paper. he had tears in his eyes. They were tears of rage. It seemed to me that the drawing was a powerful statement of his pain and the finality of his loss. It was clear that this broken vase could never hold water, could never function as a vase again. It hurt to watch. After he left, I folded the
picture up and saved it. It seemed too important to throw away.
In time, his anger began to change in subtle ways. he began one session by
handing me an article torn from our local newspaper. it was an article about a motorcycle accident in which a young man had lost his leg. His doctors were quoted at length. I finihsed reading it and looked up. "Those idiots don't know the first thing about it, " he said furiously. Over the next month he brought in more of these articles, some from the paper and some from magazines: a girl who had ben severely burned in a house fire, a boy whose hand had been partly destroyed in the explosion of his chemistry set. His reactions were always the same, a harsh judgement of the well-meaning efforts of doctors and parents. His anger about these other young people began to occupy more and more of our session time. No one understood them, no one was there for them, no one really knew how to help them. He was still enraged, but it seemed to me that underneath this anger a concern for others was growing. Encouraged, I asked him if he wanted to do anything about it. Caught by surprise, at first he said no. But, just before he left he asked me if I thought he could meet some of these others who suffered injuries like his.
People came to our teaching hospital from all over the world, and the chances were good that there were some with the sorts of injuries that mattered to him. I said that I thought it was quite possible and I would look into it. Within a few weeks, he had begun to visit young people on the surgical wards whose problems were similar to his own.
He came back from these visits full of stories, delighted to find that he could reach young people. He was often able to be of help when no one else could. After a while he felt able to speak to parents and families, helping them to better understand and to know what was needed. The surgeons, delighted with the results of these visits, referred more and more people to him.
Some of these doctors had seen him play ball and they began to spend a little time with him. As he got to know them, his respect for them grew. Gradually his anger faded and he developed a sort of ministry. I just watched and listened and appreciated.
My favorite of all his stories concerned a visit to a young woman who had a tragic family history: breast cancer had claimed the lives of her mother, her sister and her cousin. Another sister was in chemotherapy. this last event had driven her into action. At twenty-one she took one of the only options open at that time, she had both her breasts removed surgically.
He visited her on a hot midsummer day, wearing shorts, his artifical leg in full view. Deeply depressed, she lay in bed with her eyes closed, refusing to look at him. He tried everything he knew to reach her, but without success. he said things to her that only another person with an altered body would dare to say. He made jokes, he got angry. She did not respond. All the while the radio was softly playing rock music. Frustrated, he finally stood, and in a last effort to get her attention, he unstrapped the harness of his artifical leg and let it drop to the floor with a loud thump. Statrtled, she opened her eyes and saw him for the first time. Encouraged, he began to hop around the room snapping his fingers in time to the music and laughing out loud. After a moment she burst out laughing too, "fella, ," she said, "If you can dance, maybe I can sing."
This young woman became his friend and began to visit people in the hospital
with him. She was in school and she encouraged him to return to school to study
psychology and dream of carrying his work further. Eventually she became his wife, a
very different sort of person from the models and cheerleaders he had dated in the past.
But long before this, we ended our sessions together. In our final meeting, we were
reviewing the way he had come, the sticking points and the turning points. I opened his chart and found the picture of the broken vase that he had drawn two years before.
Unfolding it, I asked him if he remembered the drawing he had made of his body. He
took it in his hands and looked at it for some time. "You know, " he said, "it's really not finished." Surprised, I extended my basket of crayons towards him. Taking a yellow crayon, he began to drawn lines radiating from the crack in the vase to the very edges of the paper. Thick yellow lines. I watched, puzzled. He was smiling. Finally, he put his finger on the crack, looked at me and said, softly, "This is where the light comes through"

I doubt that this young man, many years ago, before the craze that kabbalah has become, had heard of the doctrine of the shattered vessel. But one of the most powerfully affecting ideas of the mystics was precisely this that brokenness is not only a flaw: it is also a potential. And that even, sometimes, brokenness is becasue of something so powerful and holy that it has to escape, to be let into the world of the actual from the world of the potential.
The cosmology of the kabbalists is one of complexity and strangeness: God must pull back to make room for imperfection, because perfection is lonely; God's holiness is so powerful that it shatters the vessels that are themselves imperfect, leaving pieces of holiness scattered around the universe: an act of weakness leading to great beauty, like a shower of sparks from a campfire, and we, human beings are also vessels of imperfection and beauty, full of holiness, and whose brokenness can be made into a gift to God.

Source?Vayikra Rabbah 7:2
Midrash Raba tells us: R. Alexandri said: If an ordinary person makes use of broken vessels, it is a disgrace for him, but the vessels used by the Holy One, blessed be God, are precisely broken ones. God loves broken vessels,. "And God's favorite vessel? The human heart. God is most alive in us, not when we are full and satisfied, but when we are empty, cracked open, when we are brokenhearted.
Moses was our most brilliant leader because he knew that our hearts must be broken again and again throughout our lives, in order for the God of Life to reach us.

The stories the rabbis tell come to teach us that when we examine our flaws, when we come to understand them, they can become a source of strength and beauty.
There is an old Jewish folktale about a king who owned a valuable ruby, one of the rarest and most perfect in the world. One day the diamond fell and a deep scratch marred its face. The king summoned the best gem experts in the land to correct the blemish, but they all agreed they could not remove the scratch without cutting away a good part of the surface, thus reducing the weight and value of the ruby.

Finally one expert appeared and assured him that he could fix the ruby without reducing its value. His confidence was convincing and the king gave the ruby to the man. In a few days, the artisan returned the ruby to the king, who was amazed to find that the ugly scratch was gone, and in its place a beautiful rose was etched. The former scratch had become the stem of an exquisite flower.

When we talk about brokenness, we aren't talking about sins, rather, we are talking about the things which draw us toward sin -our Yetzer Hara, our inclination towards evil. But the rabbis understood, too, that the yetzer hara isn't really itself evil. It is also, according to them, the urge to procreate, to start a business, to build a house, all of which are good things. But ultimately at its core, these things are driven by one force: desire. Desire is not bad, but it is a kind of brokenness. Desire is longing, it comes from a feeling of emptiness. And at its heart, it is also the opportunity to invite God in.
In the book of Genesis, there are two creation stories. In the first, the first human being is not male or female but a creature of two sexes, which God then separates into two creatures, which forever now long for one another. But why did God do this? Perhaps one answer is that the adam, the earth creature, was too perfect. Although the Torah suggests that the adam was lonely, and looked among all the other creatures for a match, and was unable to find one, it seems to me that God created the Adam as a partner for Godself, a friend, as it were, but then the adam was too self-contained. The Adam wasn't a good match for God because in itself it was complete like God. So how was God to have a partner who would turn to God? God realized that something would have to be taken away from the adam, some piece would have to be missing, so that the adam would go searching, would develop curiousity and love and longing. In that longing for another human being also resides the longing for God. All brokenneess is a reflection of that original brokenness.

But we seek to cover up our essential brokenness in all kinds of things: possessions, power, money, sex: desire is not a bad thing - brokenness is a necessity for connecting to God, but only when we are able to face it. If we want to connect to God, if we want to be a vesssel for light, its not enough to simply be broken, we need to act to channel where the light goes. If you just let the brokenness be, unexamined and undirected, the light goes out, we become bitter, or selfish. What we want is a conduit, not a shattered vessel. Brokeness can be turned to holiness by making a stem of a rose from a scratch, not in leaving the scratch as it is.

The midrash compares the Torah to water: In the midrash on Song of Songs, the rabbis
give many many examples of places where the Torah is compared to water. I want to
mention just a very few:

îä äîéí îùéáéï äðôù ùðà' )ùåôèéí èæ( åéá÷ò àìäéí àú äîëúù àùø áìçé
åâå' ëê úåøä ùðà' )úäìéí éè( úåøú ä' úîéîä îùéáú ðôù
Just as water restores the soul, as it says, But God cleaved the hollow place which was in Lehi and there came water thereout; and when he had drunk... he revived (Judg. XV, 19), so does the Torah [restore the soul], as it says, The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul (Ps. XIX, 8).

åîä îéí éåøãéï èéôéï èéôéï åðòùéú ðçìéí ðçìéí ëê úåøä àãí ìîã á' äìëåú
äéåí åá' ìîçø òã ùðòùä ëðçì ðåáò îä îéí àí àéï àãí öîà àéðä òøáä áâåôå
ëê úåøä àí àéï àãí òéó áä àéðä òøáä áâåôå
Just as rain water comes down in drops and forms rivers, so with the Torah; a person learns two halachahs to-day and two to-morrow, until he becormes like a flowing stream. Just as water has no taste unless one is thirsty, so the Torah has no taste unless one labours at it.

This midrash teaches us a powerful lesson. It begins by quoting,
åÇéÌÄáÀ÷Çò àÁìÉäÄéí àÆúÎäÇîÌÇëÀúÌÅùÑ àÂùÑÆøÎáÌÇìÌÆçÄé åÇéÌÅöÀàåÌ îÄîÌÆðÌåÌ îÇéÄí åÇéÌÅùÑÀúÌÀ åÇúÌÈùÑÈá øåÌçåÉ
But God split a hollow place that was in Lehi, and water came out; and when he drank, his soul was returned to him and he revived (Judges 15:19) it is from the breaking of the stone that water comes in this midrash. We are being asked to imagine what it is in the world that makes us open to Torah: and the answer is "the place where God breaks us."
Our souls are returned to us from the place where they were broken.The imagination of the midrash is giving us a vision which draws for us a picture of Torah as water that heals, the flow of water literally vayechi - makes us live, but that water cannot flow until we allow ourselves to be split open.
But how are we to open ourselves to that possibility? The reverse is true as well: while we certainly can't live without that water of Torah, the midrash continues, we also cannot just leak! thus the rest of the midrash comes to teach us that we have to work at making ourselves the kind of person from whom water can flow once we are broken, and that means that we have to already have a place for God to slip in.. The midrash says, "Just as rain water comes down in drops and forms rivers, so with the Torah; a man learns two halachahs to-day and two to-morrow, until he becormes like a flowing stream. Just as water has no taste unless one is thirsty, so the Torah has no taste unless one labours at it."
If Torah is life giving water, and it cannot come forth from us unless we are broken, there is still more than one kind of brokenness. This is how Russians drink tea (I vaguely remember seeing this operation in my grandmother's house as a little girl). You pour hot tea into a glass over a spoon. You can't pour the tea without the spoon, because without the spoon, the hot liquid was too much for the glass, and it would shatter. We need the spoon, a guide, something to keep the temperature from being too hot. The beginning of the universe was an act of beauty in its shattering, and the sparks that were freed are ours to collect, but that shattering was almost too much for the universe. That kind of shattering destroys rather than heals, which is why God needs Jews to collect the sparks through our mitzvot and return them to God. Our former sports stars' drawing of the vase didn't after all, have a shattered vase, but a cracked vase - it still held together enough that it's contents didn't go
flying out in all directions. The man himself did, in the end, hold together; he was not completely shattered.
If our brokenness is an unwaware kind of brokenness, then it isn't the kind of crack that allows Torah to flow in, rather it's a shattering akin to pouring hot tea into a glass without a spoon. Torah is our guide, our spoon, it lets the hot liquid come into the glass drop by drop, so that the vessel holds and is not destroyed. The Torah builds us "two halachas today, and two tomorrow - we have to chip slowly away at ourselves, to find a way to let the Torah in so that the water can flow out.

"Teshuva, tefila and tzedakah" says our liturgy during these days of awe, "maavirin et roa hagezeira ..."
but that doesn't mean repentance, prayer and charity, avert the evil decree, but rather something more specific. Teshuva means turn: not simply to return ourselves, but to turn our viewpoint. In social work (I know this because I'm married to a social worker) this is called "reframing". The situation you're in looks terrible, but what can you get out of it? Your flaw looks insurmountable, but how can you make it a strength?
Tefila, is not just the English "prayer" but from the word to examine oneself. Turning, reframing can't happen without some self knowledge. Our sports star couldn't see that there was light to be brought into the world through his crack until he had stopped thinking of only himself. He had to begin thinking of himself in an entirely new way, and it didn't happen by accident,. It could have gone either way - he might have turned into a bitter, lonely old man, forever dwelling on what he had had and what had been stolen from him. Instead, he can now see that while it would be wrong to say his disease was a blessing, he can say that it made him a better person, one more aware of others, and a person who acts in the world for God's ends, and not just his own.
And tzedakah. Of course this does mean charity in the sense of money as well. Part of Jewish obligation is helping those without by sharing with them what we have. The
tzedakah fair we have every year (coming up Nov 6th!) is an opportunity for everyone in the community to show how generous the people at Adas are in that way - by walking and raising money for Anne Frank house we are able to help in profound ways the people in the community. But that's not all of what tzedakah is: in Latin, Charity is from caritas, which is a gesture of affection. Tzedakah, however, is an obligation to do justly. We don't do to make ourselves feel good, but because it is rquired by God. Because it is the just thing to do.It's not enough to reframe for oneself and come to think about oneself. One has to turn one's actions outward, and not just with giving money, but by making the world a place in which God shines forth from every crack. It took turning our sports star's anger towards the benefit of others, and helping them with their anger that his flaw became a rose, that his crack became a place for light to shine forth. Notice the gem in our story did not cease to have a scratch. The scratch is always there, but wisdom turned the scratch into a rose. It took work, action to make something new of that scratch.

At this time of year, when we need to examine our selves: do cheshbon hanefesh - take an account of our flaws and take responsibility for them, we are at the moment of redemption. Human beings are by nature broken creatures. All of us are flawed, and all of us have the capacity to turn those flaws into a conduit for holiness. The task of Yom Kippur, and really of every day of our lives, is to shuv- turn, or "reframe" your flaws, your faults, so they become virtues. If you tend toward competitiveness, become competitive about giving more tzedaka; if you tend toward short-temperedness, try to direct it as righteous indignation at things that are wrong in the world. Each of these flaws is a facet of our longing for God. When our former sports star found a way to make his anger at his cancer become instead anger at how ill people were treated, and then finally, a task that he took on to
change how people who had gone through trauma were treated, that brokeness became a
place for the light in him to shine forth, for the water to flow from him, and revive those who drank. On Yom Kippur we stand before God, exposed, intimate and naked. God grants us this moment to see that our individual brokenness is at its heart, all one - it is a piece of the longing God instilled within us for Godself. The vessels used by God are broken ones. For it is only the broken who can make themselves whole.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Utefila, u'teshuva u'tzedakah

Shabbat 156b

From Samuel too [we learn that] Israel is immune from planetary influence. For Samuel and Ablat were sitting, while certain people were going to a lake. Said Ablat to Samuel: ‘That man is going but will not return, [for] a snake will bite him and he will die.’ ‘If he is an Israelite,’ replied Samuel. ‘he will go and return.’ While they were sitting he went and returned. [Thereupon] Ablat arose and threw off his [the man's] knapsack, [and] found a snake therein cut up and lying in two pieces — Said Samuel to him, ‘What did you do?’ ‘Every day we pooled our bread and ate it; but to-day one of us had no bread, and he was ashamed. Said I to them, "I will go and collect [the bread]". When I came to him, I pretended to take [bread] from him, so that he should not be ashamed.’ ‘You have done a good deed,’ said he to him. Then Samuel went out and lectured: But charity delivereth from death; and [this does not mean] from an unnatural death, but from death itself.

From R. Akiba too [we learn that] Israel is free from planetary influence. For R. Akiba had a daughter. Now, astrologers told him, On the day she enters the bridal chamber a snake will bite her and she will die. He was very worried about this. On that day [of her marriage] she took a brooch [and] stuck it into the wall and by chance it penetrated [sank] into the eye of a serpent. The following morning, when she took it out, the snake came trailing after it. ‘What did you do?’ her father asked her. ‘A poor man came to our door in the evening.’ she replied, ‘and everybody was busy at the banquet, and there was none to attend to him. So I took the portion which was given to me and gave it to him. ‘You have done a good deed,’ said he to her. Thereupon R. Akiba went out and lectured: ‘But charity delivereth from death’: and not [merely] from an unnatural death, but from death itself.

From R. Nahman b. Isaac too [we learn that] Israel is free from planetary influence. For R. Nahman b. Isaac's mother was told by astrologers, Your son will be a thief. [So] she did not let him [be] bareheaded, saying to him, ‘Cover your head so that the fear of heaven may be upon you, and pray [for mercy]’. Now, he did not know why she spoke that to him. One day he was sitting and studying under a palm tree; temptation overcame him, he climbed up and bit off a cluster [of dates] with his teeth.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

SAturday, fourth of July weekend, Washington D.C. You can do the math if you want.

Talmud Bavli Shabbat 156a

It was recorded in R. Joshua b. Levi's notebook: He who [is born] on the first day of the week [Sunday] shall be a person without one [thing] in him — What does ‘without one [thing] in him’ mean? Shall we say, without one virtue? Surely R. Ashi said: I was born on the first day of the week! Hence it must surely mean, one vice. But Surely R. Ashi said: I and Dimi b. Kakuzta were born on the first day of the week: I am a king and he is the captain of thieves! — Rather it means either completely virtuous or completely wicked. [What is the reason? Because light and darkness were created on that day.] He who is born on the second day of the week will be bad-tempered — What is the reason? Because the waters were divided thereon. He who is born on the third day of the week will be wealthy and unchaste. What is the reason? Because herbs were created thereon. He who is born on the fourth day of the week will be wise and of a retentive memory. What is the reason? Because the luminaries were suspended [thereon] — He who is born on the fifth day of the week will practise benevolence. What is the reason? Because the fishes and birds were created thereon.He who is born on the eve of the Sabbath will be a seeker. R. Nahman b. Isaac commented: A seeker after good deeds. He who is born on the Sabbath will die on the Sabbath, because the great day of the Sabbath was desecrated on his account. Raba son of R. Shila observed: And he shall be called a great and holy man.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Your souls are Holy: Rosh Hashanah 5766

Can someone please tell me what a chasiddic rebbe looks like?

(Pause. Take answers)

Okay, so let's see, a chassidic rebbe looks like this:
long gray beard, payyot - sidelocks- black clothes, black hat.Oldish. Well, I do have a black hat, but.... I just look really awful with a beard.

When I began rabbinical school, our then assistant-dean Rabbi Eddie Horowitz told me
that he knew that deep down I was a chasid. I thought this was -let's just say, very unlikely, given my background in philosophy of science, I was about as rationalist as rabbis come. It turns out however, that in the end, it was he who was right. The transformation -or perhaps I should say, revelation- of this inner chasid was a long time coming, but since arriving here, it has become clear to me just how right Rabbi Eddie was.

What finally convinced me of the truth of the mystics is my yearly struggle to understand why so many people - people who never otherwise come to shul- come to
High holiday services. If someone is going to come, come on shabbat morning, which is beautiful, and comfortable, and comradely, and may get you an invitation to lunch. Or come on Purim, which is fun, even raucous, or Simchat Torah, which is joyful. Or if you're into the intellectual pursuits, come for a tikkun leil shavuot, when you can pack your brain full and eat cheesecake to boot.
To a rationalist, this high holiday phenomenon is inexplicable. Oh, I know that lots of rational explanations have been floated: guilt, habit - all kinds of things, but the truth is that none of them make sense. They could just as easily apply to all kinds of other things in Jewish life, and yet they don't. Let's face it, there's no obvious reason to come on the high holidays. They're not especially fun. At least on Rosh Hashanah you get to eat, but it's the day on which nations are judged - awesome, even scary - and certainly not raucous. And Yom Kippur is a fast day. And it's long.
That's what a rationalist says. I used to dream about giving a sermon in which I said: okay, all of you who come just for the high holidays, just go home, and come back on another holiday. But I finally realized why I've never given that sermon. It's because Rabbi Eddie was right, I'm a secret chasid, and a chasid understands something that no rationalist can. You're here, not because of guilt, and not because of habit. You're not here because your mother belonged to this shul, or because you want your kids to marry Jews. You're not here for the food, and you're not here to see the folks you haven't seen in a year.You're not here to get your money's worth from your dues. You're here because your souls are holy. They are precious.
Some of you may think that you've come for one of the reasons I've just
mentioned. Some of you may be wondering what the heck drags you out here year after
year. But it's not really a mystery to the chassidic heart. Our midrash suggests that sometimes our motivations are hidden even from us.That what seems to be one thing is really something quite different, and that what seems to be ordinary, may really be something quite sublime.

Midrash Songs of Songs 6:18 says:
18. THY TEMPLES ARE LIKE A POMEGRANATE SPLIT OPEN. ...Moses began to praise [Israel] them, saying, ‘Even the emptiest among you is as full of religious observances and good deeds as a pomegranate of seeds.’...

Rabbi Dov Baer commented, "...the fear of Heaven, in Torah, Mitzvot (obligations),
charity, prayer and repentance of the heart etc, may be found in each and every Jew
according to his capabilities, as stated, “Your nation are all righteous etc”. "

That's a pretty broad statement. "Your nation all are righteous." After all we know that there are lots of Jews who aren't such good Jews. They cheat, lie or steal, they murder or take drugs or beat their wives, they eat non-kosher food or worship money as if it were a god. So how could Moses say, ‘Even the emptiest among you is as full of religious observances and good deeds as a pomegranate of seeds?"

Yet, our midrash is suggesting something very important.

Pick up rimon from a Torah....

See this? It's called a rimon; it's shaped like a pomegranate ( which is what a rimon is called in English) Although the Menorah and star of david are ofte thought of as THE symbols of Judaism, really, the symbol of Israel is this: (hold up rimon)Punica granatum, stylized, you see it everywhere in Judaism. In Arabic, the pomegranate is called rumman, the fruit of Paradise. Muslims say," People who eat pomegranates will have their hearts filled with light for every pomegranate contains one seed from heaven" This Muslim saying is an interesting one, for it is not dissimilar from an idea of the Jewish mystics.

The kabbalist Chaim Vitale holds that pomegranates contain 613 seeds - one for each
commandment, mitzvah, to which we are obligated - perhaps it's true. Certainly that
would explain why it is the decoration of choice for a Torah, which also contains 613 mitzvot - commandments. It is royal in color: a purply red; shaped like a heart, it is sweet and full of juice and it wears a crown: these things are representative of Israel as well, and it is particularly fitting today on Rosh Hashanah to ask how the pomegranate also tells us something about Rosh Hashanah.

The new year, the day of judgement of nations, also has these qualities: royalty - as we stand before God, hopes for sweetness and juice, and of course as the head of the year, it wears a crown. But most of all, the pomegranate is shaped like a heart. It is this which makes it so rich a symbol. Inside this heart-shaped fruit lies hundreds of seeds, all those seeds which are good deeds and mitzvot, commandments. But these seeds, like the thoughts of the heart, the motivations of a soul, cannot be seen from the outside. In fact, even once the fruit is cracked open, you can only see part of what is there. Like the soul, the pomegranate hides its sweetness. The seeds are surrounded by veils - you know, all that bitter ivory skin to which the seeds cling - but it's not completely opaque - you can see the ruby glow behind it, and know what's on the other side. There is only one way to see the seeds, to tear away the bitter veils that hide them.

The Mei Hashiloach, comments on a verse we read the second day of Rosh Hashana,
"In the seventh month on the first of the month..." Bamidbar/Numbers 29:1
he explains, ... (Bamidbar 2) "[ The Zohar's discussion of Genesis refers to the two creation stories in the Torah. In the first one it says that Chava - Eve- was taken from the side of Adam. Adam is understood by the rabbis to be not a man, but a creature of earth -which is what adam means- a creature of two sexes, one on each side. At that time,] when humanity was of the "two faces," male and female were connected as one." This means that there was no veil separating the creation and the light of the blessed God (i.e. gender in torah is allegorical...) And all of creation had an explicit understanding that all who separated from the Torah were as much as separating from life itself. So from this kind of understanding there is no room for human service. Yet the blessed God wants to improve His creation and he desires that humans will have a way to serve Him. For this reason there was nesia, the separation of "female" from "male", on Rosh Hashanah. And this separation is as it is written (Beresheit 2:21) "And God cast a deep slumber on the "man" (earth creature) and he slept."

This means that that he created a veil separating the creation and the light of the blessed God. Thus, humans must tear away the veil and understand as it was before separation... much the human works in Divine service to tear away the veil, that is how much that person will see the connection that they have with the light of the blessed God as it was before the separation.

The human heart is impenetrable to the eyes of other humans, but God also hides behind a veil. Like the pomegranate, the beauty that is there is hidden, glowing and sweet behind a bitter skin that must be deliberately removed to find what it is we seek. In this, humans are the divine image: we are mysteries that seek to be discovered. But it is also important to note that there is a reason for the veil - it isn't just a difficulty to be overcome for no reason. The veil is there in order that we learn to serve God. The veil is a doorway to doing mitzvot, commandments.

The rabbi continues, "As we read in the Torah- 'Blow the shofar in the month, in the covering of the new moon on the day of our festival,' all the other festivals occur on the full moon, meaning that blessed God turns to His creation, that His creation should have an understanding of His light. But on this festival it is "in the covering" as it says in the holy Zohar (Shoftim 275b), "That the moon covers itself," meaning that the creation does not recognize the light of the blessed God. And by performing the mitzvah of blowing the shofar, a human may connect his apprehension of this world with God's primordial will.

So, on other holidays, God allows us a glimpse of the divine joy of the universe, but not on Rosh Hashanah. On RH, the veil remains intact. On RH, we have an additional veil between us and God -until the shofar blows, and if we have prepared ourselves, the glory of God is revealed to us.

We see that within the pomegranate, this holy fruit, we still can't see all that there is. Things remain hidden from us. And this is one reason that the souls of Israel are attracted to RH. Today, the sound of the shofar tears away the veil and we can see for a moment the true light of God. In the moment of holiness, in the sound of the shofar, our souls blaze with light. So we can understand how it is that mystics say that the pomegranate is a fruit filled with light, that there is within it a seed of heaven. Within each soul, there is also a seed of heaven. No matter how far we have fallen away from tradition, there is a seed of heaven within us.
This is why Jews come to shul in droves during the days of Awe. The rabbi's
statement is a remarkable statement: no matter how far away we are from God at that
moment, no matter how far we have drifted, if we truly are willing to open ourselves up, if we truly are willing, the spark in our souls will jump forth when we hear the shofar, and God's light will evoke light within us. Because, no matter what we tell ourselves our reasons are, in truth, it is our souls longing to be discovered, to have the veils ripped away, to blaze forth with light. To have the seed of heaven within us discovered by God. And also to experience the moment in which God's veil, too is ripped away in a moment of mutual intimacy.
And we also know, deep down, that that can't happen by accident. We know, in
our hearts, that the places in this world where we can be stripped away are few. That the world is not a safe place for intimacy, that connecting to God requires such a deep intimacy that baring ourselves takes an act of courage, that to ready ourselves for that act of courage may take a lifetime. And so we come to the synagogue hoping that this year will be the time. That the shofar will blow, and tear away our veils, at the moment when God is revealed in the world, and we will be ready.
But many of us are disappointed. year after year we return, and we find ourselves leaving as we came, bored, struggling, returning to our every day lives untouched by the malchut, glory, that is supposed to suffuse us on these days. We have been scoured by the world, and rather than leaving us ready to shine with light, we are simply abraded and raw.

So how can it be that the holiness of our souls can be revealed this year? How can we fulfill the desires of our hearts, the desires that perhaps we don't even know? To answer this question, I want to pose to you another. Why be Jewish?

Not so long ago, we didn't have a choice. The outside world made us stay with our own kind, whatever that might mean. We were persecuted. We lived segregated. But that's no longer true. We have risen to the heights of freedom, and we can do whatever we want. For a while, it was enough to say we had a culture, but that proves to not really be true: at best we have many cultures, but without mitzvot, we have seen, culture fades and is replaced by a bland sort of liberalism, so that can't be it. Judaism is not a simple political postion. In fact, it's not even a complicated political position. It is, rather, a deep truth about the universe.
Our souls, my friends are holy, but holiness is not something that is, it is
something that does. If we want to find that kernel of heaven within us, it requires work.
A Jewish soul is not had for the asking - it is a gift. .Why be Jewish? Because God wants us to be Jews. The veil is there for the purpose of being torn away. The kernel of heaven is within your heart, waiting to be discovered because that light is a gift to the world. You are a candle waiting to be lit.
God saw that the human ability to have a relationship with God was weak and so created a system to help us. God offered the Torah to many nations, but only Israel accepted it - and for good reason, look, we've survived thousands of years of hard work, and persecution on top of that.- the rabbis of the talmud recognized how difficult it is to be Jewish. Spiritual work isn't easy. Of course, you don't have to be Jewish to connect to God, but it's stupendously difficult to truly do - it's like wanting to be an Olympic gold medalist - it takes a lot of training, and a lot of practise. The big difference of course, is that there's no limitation on the number of medals handed out. We may not all get the gold, but potentially we all could, if we were willing to work hard enough for it. That's why the world needs Judaism: we're here to offer an example and a tutorial. You are essential Without you, Judaism's message cannot be carried out.
But there's more. That revelation is not for us alone. Today we balk at the idea of being chosen. Chosenness sounds elitist and creepy. But our holy souls recognize something else, a deep truth about Judaism: The world needs Jews. Judaism has a mission, and that mission is essential for the world. God created the covenant to care for the spiritual needs of all the world and all its people. The Jews didn't accept Torah just for ourselves, but on behalf of the entire world. Even the land of Israel was given on the condition that we give the highest commmitment to God and Torah, and to the moral and spiritual guidance that God provided for us through halacha, the law.
The Mei Hashiloach also says, regarding one of the verses that we read about Abraham on RH, ...that " Elohim tested Avraham" (Ber. 22) He comments, the whole matter of a miracle is because man forgets. For on the day that Adam was created, he saw the ocean raging and swelling, and his reaction was as if he
was witnessing the miracle of the splitting of the sea of reeds (at the exodus) Yet since man is a forgetful creature, and has become accustomed to the nature of this world and the motion of the sea, when finally the sea of reeds split it was seen as a miracle. A miracle is only when man is woken from the forgetting, which causes him not to see that everything is coming from the blessed God. yet when one witnesses a miracle, he wakes up and sees this.
Ps. 36: 10. says, " For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light shall we see light." Rosh Hashanah reminds us where to look for the kernel of heaven within us: In God's light, we will see our own light. But in order to see God's light, we have to reach out to God in intimacy and love. For God has implanted the seed of heaven within us, but it is up to us to light it up.
In the rush of the everyday, we have forgotten that our souls are holy. So we need Rosh HaShanah to remind us who we are. The blast of the shofar is here to remind us that every moment is a miracle, every soul is holy. The blast of the shofar tears away the veils of the universe to remind us that when we leave here, we have the opportunity to ignite the world with light, if only we are willing to do the work it requires.That work is the work of bringing God into the world through mitzvot. The work is not easy. But without mitzvot, your souls remain dormant, forever longing, and never leaping into flame. Your souls are holy, but to shine, they have to be polished every day. Remember who you are:
You are the Fruit of Paradise.

Chag sameach. L'shanah tovah. May you be inscribed in the book of life, the eternal book, The Torah of the universe.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Give tithes and honor the sabbath: honor the sabbath and it will honor you


R. Hiyya b. Abba said in R. Johanan's name: He who observes the Sabbath according to its laws, even if he practises idolatry like the generation of Enosh, is forgiven, for it is said, Blessed is Enosh that does this ... [that keeps the Sabbath mehallelo from profaning it]: read not mehallelo but mahul lo [he is forgiven].

Rab Judah said in Rab's name: Had Israel kept the first Sabbath, no nation or tongue would have enjoyed dominion over them, for it is said, And it came to pass on the seventh day, that there went out some of the people for to gather; which is followed by, Then came Amalek. R. Johanan said in the name of R. Simeon b. Yohai: If Israel were to keep two Sabbaths according to the laws thereof, they would be redeemed immediately, for it is said, Thus saith the Lord of the eunuch that keep my Sabbaths, which is followed by, even them will I bring to my holy mountain, etc.

And from today's daf 119a:

Joseph-who-honours-the-Sabbaths had in his victory a certain gentile who owned much property. Soothsayers17 told him, ‘Joseph-who-honours-the-Sabbaths will consume all your property. — [So] he went, sold all his property, and bought a precious stone with the proceeds, which he set in his turban. As he was crossing a bridge the wind blew it off and cast it into the water, [and] a fish swallowed it. [Subsequently] it [the fish] was hauled up and brought [to market] on the Sabbath eve towards sunset. ‘Who will buy now?’ cried they. ‘Go and take them to Joseph-who-honours-the-Sabbaths,’ they were told, ‘as he is accustomed to buy.’ So they took it to him. He bought it, opened it, found the jewel therein, and sold it for thirteen roomfuls of gold denarii. A certain old man met him [and] said, ‘He who lends to the Sabbath, the Sabbath repays him.’

Rabbi asked R. Ishmael son of R. Jose, The wealthy in Palestine, whereby do they merit [wealth]? — Because they give tithes, he replied, as it is written, ‘Asser te'asser [which means], give tithes [‘asser] so that thou mayest become wealthy [tith'asser]. Those in Babylon, wherewith do they merit [it]? — Because they honour the Torah, replied he. And those in other countries, whereby do they merit it? — Because they honour the Sabbath, answered he. For R. Hiyya b. Abba related: I was once a guest of a man in Laodicea, and a golden table was brought before him, which had to be carried by sixteen men; sixteen silver chains were fixed in it, and plates, goblets, pitchers and flasks were set thereon, thereon, and upon it were all kinds of food, dainties and spices. When they set it down they recited, The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof; and when they removed it [after the meal] they recited, The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, But the earth hath he given to the children of men. Said I to him, ‘My son! whereby hast thou merited this?’ ‘I was a butcher,’ replied he, ‘and of every fine beast I used to say, "’This shall be for the Sabbath"’. Said I to him, ‘Happy art thou that thou hast [so] merited, and praised be the Omnipresent who has permitted thee to enjoy [all] this.’

The emperor said to R. Joshua b. Hanania, ‘Why has the Sabbath dish such a fragrant odour?’ ‘We have a certain seasoning,’ replied he, ‘called the Sabbath, which we put into it, and that gives it a fragrant odour.’ ‘Give us some of it,’ asked he. ‘To him who keeps the Sabbath,’ retorted he, ‘it is efficacious; but to him who does not keep the Sabbath it is of no use.’

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The aleph-bet is explained

Talmud Shabbat 104a

It was stated above, Rabbi CHisda said: The mem and the samek which were in the Tables stood [there] by a miracle. R. Hisda also said: The writing of the Tables could be read from within and without, e.g., nebub [hollow] would be read buban;-behar [in the mountain] [as] rahab; saru [they departed] [as] waras. The Rabbis told R. Joshua ben Levi: Children have come to the Bet Hamidrash and said things the like of which was not said even in the days of Joshua the son of Nun. [Thus:] alef Bet [means] ‘learn wisdom [alef Binah]; Gimmel Dalet, show kindness to the Poor [Gemol Dallim]. Why is the foot of the Gimmel stretched toward the Dalet? Because it is fitting for the benevolent to run after [seek out] the poor. And why is the roof of the Dalet stretched out toward the Gimmel? Because he [the poor] must make himself available to him. And why is the face of the Dalet turned away from the Gimmel? Because he must give him [help] in secret, lest he be ashamed of him. He, Waw, that is the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He; Zayyin, Het, Tet, Yod, Kaf, Lamed: [this sequence teaches,] and if thou doest thus, the Holy One, blessed be He, will sustain [Zan] thee, be gracious [Hen] unto thee, show goodness [metib] to thee, give thee a heritage [Yerushah], and bind a crown [Keter] on thee in the world to come. The open Mem and the closed Mem [denote] open teaching [Ma'amar] and closed [esoteric] teaching. The bent Nun and the straight Nun: the faithful [Ne'eman] if bent [humble], [will ultimately be] the faithful, straightened. Samek, ‘ayyin: support [Semak] the poor [‘aniyyim]. Another interpretation: devise [‘aseh] mnemonics [Simanin] in the Torah and [thus] acquire [memorize] it. The bent pe and the straight pe [intimate] an open mouth [peh], a closed mouth. A bent tzadde and a straight tzadde: the righteous [tzaddik] is bent [in this world]; the righteous is straightened [in the next world]. But that is identical with the faithful bent [and] the faithful straightened?-The Writ added humility to his humility; hence [we learn that] the Torah was given under great submissiveness. Kuf [stands for] Kadosh [holy]; Resh [for] Rasha’ [wicked]: why is the face of the Kuf averted from, the Resh? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: I cannot look at the wicked. And why is the crown of the Kuf turned toward the Resh? The Holy One, blessed be He, saith: If he repents, I will bind a crown on him like Mine. And why is the foot of the Kuf suspended? [To show] that if he repents, he can enter and be brought in [to God's favour] through this [opening]. This supports Resh Lakish, for Resh Lakish said: What is meant by, Surely he scorneth the scorners, But he giveth grace unto the lowly? If one comes to defile himself, he is given an opening; if one comes to cleanse himself, he is helped. SHin [stands for] SHeker [falsehood]; Tav [for] emet [truth]: why are the letters of Sheker close together, whilst those of ‘emet are far apart? Falsehood is frequent, truth is rare. And why does falsehood [stand] on one foot, whilst truth has a brick-like foundation? Truth can stand, falsehood cannot stand.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Our father, Isaac

I'm a little behind in my daf yomi, but I did find this interesting piece of Aggada (Shabbat 89b). Usually Isaac is kind of a bland character, but here he plays a role not unlike that of Rachel in the midrash.

R. Samuel b. Nakhmani also said in R. Yonathan's name: What is meant by, For thou art our father, though Abraham knoweth is not, and Israel doth not acknowledge us: thou, O Lord, art our father; our redeemer from everlasting is thy name?
In the future to come the Holy One, blessed be He, will say to Abraham. ‘Thy children have sinned against Me.’ He shall answer Him, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Let them be wiped out for the sanctification of Thy Name.’ Then shall He say, ‘I will say this to Jacob, who experienced the pain of bringing up children: peradventure he will supplicate mercy for them. ‘So He will say to him, ‘Thy children have sinned.’ He [too] shall answer Him, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Let them be wiped out for the sanctification of Thy Name.’ He shall retort, ‘There is no reason in old men, and no counsel in children!’ Then shall he say to Isaac, ‘Thy children have sinned against me.’ But he shall answer Him, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Are they my children and not Thy children. When they gave precedence to "we will do" over "we will hearken" before Thee, Thou calledst them, Israel my son, my firstborn:11 now they are my sons, not Thy sons! Moreover, how much have they sinned? How many are the years of man? Seventy. Subtract twenty, for which Thou dost not punish, [and] there remain fifty. Subtract twenty-five which comprise the nights, [and] there remain twenty-five. Subtract twelve and a half of prayer, eating, and Nature's calls, [and] there remain twelve and a half. If Thou wilt bear all, ‘tis well; if not, half be upon me and half upon Thee. And shouldst Thou say, they must all be upon me, lo! I offered myself up before Thee [as a sacrifice]!’ [Thereupon] they shall commence and say, ‘For thou [i.e., Isaac] art our father.’ Then shall Isaac say to them, ‘Instead of praising me, praise the Holy One, blessed be He,’ and Isaac shall show them the Holy One, blessed be He, with their own eyes. Immediately they shall lift up their eyes on high and exclaim, ‘Thou, O Lord, art our father; our redeemer from everlasting is thy name.’

Wednesday, July 13, 2005


Um, ALright, alright,
I suppose now that I'm back from vacation I'm due for a blog post anyway. Danya tagged me for this crazy (as she puts it) meme thing. Uh, thank you Daniel Dennet.

Here goes:
Number of books I own
Also no idea: I have merged my bookshelves with those of the partner, which makes things even more confusing (and not to mention the now growing collection of children's books - he's only 14 months and can't yet read, but that doesn't really stop us), but let's see, we have 4 full size book cases in the living room, plus one of those narrow ones, two full bokcases in the dining room, the closet in the study holds a rather dangerous set of wireshelves that is meant to replace the extremely large bookcase that the movers destroyed last summer, there's a large bookcase inthe hallway and one in the bedroom. Plus two of my bookcases at work hold books that belong to me. How many? Um.
A lot.
Lots of Sfarim (holy books in Hebrew or Aramaic), plus lots of Jew central theorizing in English. Also much feminist stuff and a remnant of what used to be an enormous collection of philosophy (used to be mostly philosophy of science, now leans more heavily toward history of philosophy. I STILL regret giving away all those books to the philosophy library at UMD when I moved to LA. Still, I can only shudder at the thought of having to move them, too). There's also a good assortment of poetry (I prefer poets who don't write anything longer than two pages, but there are a few collections of things like Icelandic sagas/eddas), and some fiction - mostly brain candy, but a few good things like all of Sherman Alexie's short story collections. If there's high praise for him that's missing, consider it given here. Wow.

Last book I read:
And finished?
plane fodder for my vacation trip to PUerto Rico (which, travelling with a toddler, I managed to stretch out over three flights D.C. - Puerto Rico; Puerto Rico- Los Angeles; Los Angeles- D.C. *sigh* I wonder how old he'll be before I can finish a book on a flight again). Complete and utter brain candy. I don't actually remember the title, but it was some sort of mystery bought in an airport bookstore.
For something with a title I can recall, we will have to go to Shake Hands with the Devil enormously depressing and very important book about the Rwanda genocide. I'm currently working on the Paul Fenton translation of The Treatise of the Pool by Ovadiah Maimonides (yes, that family. He's the grandson. Apparently both the son and grandson took an interest in Sufism and tried to reclaim it (well, that's what they said they were doing) as the practices of Judaism of old.
Also Sufi Women Mystics. Yes, there's a trend there. Who'd have believed I'd ever take an interest in mysticism. *sigh* Don't let my former philosophy professors know about this, okay? It's bad enough I'm doing religion at all. Maybe I could tell them that I'm working my way through William James or something.

Last purchased:
Treatise of the Pool. I've been trying very hard not to buy too many books. It's a prerequisite to keeping my marriage together. Since I bought a bunch recently, I'm trying not to buy any more for a while. It's tough, though, since the local library doesn't really carry much in the way of Judaica. ALthough I would like to know when Steinsaltz is going to finish up his Hebrew translation of the talmud. Come on, we're waiting. It's been years since the last volume - what happened? If you finish I'll buy them, I promise!

Books that mean a lot to me:
Okay, we've already got the Judaica theme down, so count in my talmud, halachic works of various sorts, chassidut and commentaries, etc.

Carol Tavris' The Mismeasure of Woman: a really important work that lays out empirically the crap that floats around disguised as science about women and men.

Yehuda Amichai - assorted bits from various books. I love the way he folds in God and Judaism and biblical imagery into his questioning, iconoclastic poetry. If anyone makes it into a siddur in the next generation, it should be him (and not Marcia Falk. Feh.)

Also, Marge Piercy's work, which is what started me reading poetry when I was in high school.

Sherman Alexie's collections of short stories. The man writes like a human being. If human beings would let themselves be human. His characters are sweet, but not mawkish. The character who immediately comes to mind is a husband who pees sitting down on the toilet because it doesn't cost him anything to do it, and it makes his wife happy. And also loves basketball. Among other good qualities.I have to admit I'm not super mad about his poetry,a lthugh someof it is good, and his novels don't make me swoon, but he may be the best living American writer of short stories today.

Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series. I read these as a teenager, and I think that they're the most Jewish of the fantasy novels out there. The word is the thing, and not a symbol that can be translated. To speak is to make. Let there be light: and there was light. Forget Hary Potter (although I enjoy those books) and the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis (he couldn't fool me, I knew that whole Lion/Emperor overseas is some sort of Christological thing), LeGuin, dspite a somewhat less than feminist slant in her earlier books was somehow empowering. And her other books are great too, especialy in their examination of gender and culture.

I probably have to come back to this.

Tag five more:
I'll definitely have to come back to this.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

I *heart* tefillin

I've never understood why everyone doesn't love the mitzvah of tefilin. I've always thought of it as one of the most profound and also open to metaphor of all the daily obligations. I think of them sometimes as trellis - either my body as the trellis and tefillin as the plant, or the tefillin as the trellis and my body as the plant. My chaver Scott teaches a terrific lesson on tefillin as compass. And I love the various gemaras on tefillin - today's just happens to bring up this gem:

Shabbat 49a

Rabbi Yannai said: Tefillin demand a pure body, like Elisha, the man of wings. What does this mean?-Abaye said: That one must not pass wind while wearing them; Raba said: That one must not sleep in them. And why is he called the man of wings’? Because the wicked Roman government once proclaimed a decree against Israel that whoever donned tefillin should have his brains pierced through; yet Elisha put them on and went out into the streets. [When] a quaestor saw him, he fled before him, whereupon he gave pursuit. As he overtook him he [Elisha] removed them from his head and held them in his hand. ‘What is that in your hand?’ he demanded. ‘The wings of a dove,’ was his reply. He stretched out his hand and lo! they were the wings of a dove. Therefore he is called ‘Elisha the man of the wings’. And why the wings of a dove rather than that of other birds? Because the Congregation of Israel is likened to a dove, as it is said, as the wings of a dove covered with silver: just as a dove is protected by its wings, so is Israel protected by the precepts.

And here is my attempt as tefilin midrash:


A leather vine of tefillin trellises up my arm
Every morning, like Jonah’s gourd grown up overnight
Into shade, fruiting a pomegranate box:
At the forehead a crown,
At its wrist, a blossom.

Then into the morning of the parched earth
The vine unwraps, the fruit falls.
I imagine it breaking open (Split by the hot sun,
As though the rays were a knife blade,
Or ripeness a spoon)
Into four sections inside of ivory paper
Watercolored with wine stains
And crowded with seed rows of garnet script letters
Ink wet and shining as though just dipped
Off the quill.

Each morning the vine regrows
The gourd, shade from the sun
Unmerited, unrequested grace
The chance to learn forgiveness.

The taste of each word falls on my tongue
Like raindrops wrapped in parchment
Briefly resisting the bite,
And then bursting sweetness with an underlying musk
The seed kernel left caught in the teeth:
(C. 2001)


Shavuot 2005

We are wandering in the wilderness. We have been wandering, not just for the
weeks to get to Sinai. Although Shavuot marks the date when we were given the Torah, it
is far from the end of our travels.
Perhaps wilderness in the time of the Israelites was not so different than now. Not
a desert of nothingness, but a place where with every need satisfied, the Israelites took
God for granted. They thought they understood God..
And so we read the Torah portion:
Exodus 20 15-17:
15. And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the sound of the
shofar, and the mountain smoking; and the people saw it, and shook, and stood far away.
16. And they said to Moses, Speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with
us, lest we die.
17. And Moses said to the people, Fear not; for God has come to test you, and that awe of
Him will be upon your faces, so that you do not sin.

Rashi explains:
øåàéí àú ä÷åìåú. øåàéï àú äðùîò, ùàé àôùø ìøàåú áî÷åí àçø
)îëéìúà ô"è(

That our verse teaches that the people "saw the sounds, which would be impossible
All this time, and after all these miracles, Israel still had the sense that God is somehow
not that big a deal. If we think of God at all, we think of God a a kind of big parent, or
maybe some amorphous provider. It's clear from the Torah, that our ancestors were just
like us. They thought about God in terms of what they knew already, or didn't think
much about God, except when they were in fear. They thought they knew God, what God
was. So the time comes for the giving of Torah, and finally, revealed to them a bit of
God's true self. A self which is wholly unlike anything a human being can comprehend. A
self which causes people to be able to see the sounds that God spoke.
Finally, it sinks in. God is not a human being. God is not to be comprehended as
one human understands another, and yet, God still loves us, and desires a relationship
with us. How does a human nation relate to something so utterly beyond our
comprehension? How can it be possible? How can we even understand what such a
relationship might be? And it is this realization that causes the people to shake with fear
and awe and to say to Moses: Speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with
us, lest we die. That is, You, Moshe, are a human being, at least. We don't know how it is
that you can understand God's visual speech, but when you speak we hear it, like we hear
any human speech, so please, stand between us and God, because this God, we suddenly
understand, is not human, and the utter alien-ness of God could kill us.
but Moshe, no doubt smiling to himself, told them not to be afraid àÇìÎúÌÄéøÈàåÌ
ëÌÄé ìÀáÇÍòÂáåÌø ðÇñÌåÉú àÆúÀëÆí- Fear not; for God has come to test you, and that awe of Him
will be upon your faces, so that you do not sin. Their awe is what God is seeking. Rashi
explains Moshe's words:
)ìáòáåø ðñåú àúëí. ìâãì àúëí áòåìí, ùéöà ìëí ùí áàåîåú ùäåà áëáåãå ðâìä òìéëí ( ðñåú.
ìùåï äøîä åâãåìä, ëîå äøéîå ðñ )éùòéä ñá, é.(, àøéí ðñé )ùí îè, ëá.(, åëðñ òì äâáòä )ùí
ì, éæ.(,: ë ùäåà æ÷åó:
He says, Don't read nasot as "test" but as "exalt". God has raised you up through your
awe. When you finally understand that God is something other, that is when you finally
will have gained knowledge greater than that of other nations. Moshe continues: åÌáÇÍòÂáåÌø
úÌÄäÀéÆä éÄøÀàÈúåÉ òÇìÎôÌÀðÅéëÆí ìÀáÄìÀúÌÄé úÆÍçÁèÈÍàåÌ: and that awe of Him will be upon your
faces, so that you do not sin.
åáòáåø úäéä éøàúå. òì éãé ùøàéúí àåúå éÈøàåÌé åÌîÀàËéÌÈí, úãòå ëé àéï
æåìúå, åúéøàå îôðéå:
That is, by your having seen this fearsome, awesome speech, which confused your limited
human senses, left you stumbling around in confusion, holding your aching heads and
afraid because your body appears to have betrayed you, it has shown you that your senses
are limited, revealed to you that there are experiences in the universe by which your
senses are overwhelmed, made clear to you that our senses don't see the full range of
color or hear the full range of sound, that the particles and waves that make up the
universe have frequencies which we can't access, and when we try, they confound us.

We are wandering in the desert still because we do not know God.
We think we know God-
In the daily shacharit, we say v’erastich li…I betroth you… and you shall know God. We
are betrothed but we do not know God -yet.
Today is Shavuot. We stand at the mountain. Do we want to know God?
God is so utterly alien that to know God means putting aside ourselves entirely.
Ridding ourselves of our desires and attempting to experience God… there is only one
way to do it, and we have the instructions. It is the Torah, written and oral: tanakh and
Maimonides tells us that we can know God only for what God is not: any attempt to
describe God in human language by necessity will fail, so how can we know God?
We can know God through God’s actions: God acting in the world. We can know God
through relationship: tefila( prayer), and study -as one rabbi said: when I pray I speak to
God, when I study, God speaks to me
We can know God by living with God day in and day out, just as one comes to know a
beloved through immersing oneself in one’s life with the beloved, Through the
persistence of every day life, not just special occasions. One can't know the ocean by
dipping in one's toes at the beach: you have to spend your life going into its depths. It
must be feared, because it is dangerous, and its beauty gazed at. To know a few of its
creatures hardly counts as knowledge, and yet to know everything is beyond us - still if
we decide to live with the ocean at our feet every day, go out to sea every morning, eat it's
fruit and bathe in its waters, maybe, just maybe, we can begin to understand something
small about the ocean.
And if the ocean, that tiny creation on one planet in a single solar system is so amazingly
complex and beyond us, than surely to know God requires at least as much dedication as
to know the ocean.
Do we want to know God?
Are we up to the job?
It’s not easy. It means commitment: Commitment and obligation.
It means staying the course when it’s boring, or unpopular.
It means remembering God not only in foxholes, not only at weddings, and not even only
on shabbat, but at every morsel of food we put into our mouths, remembering that God
brought it to us and made us able to eat it, and so making sure that the food is holy: not
eating milk and meat together, not eating treif meat, it means blessing the food before we
put it in your mouth, and thanking God for it after we have eaten and been satisfied.
It means being Jewish requires us to do things differently than other people, to be holy in
all our actions, and sometime doing things that are just about us and God, and not about
anyone else, like Shabbat and holidays.
We stand at the foot of the mountain today. We have the chance to meet God face to face.
Will we take it?
Can we be holy?

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Gender baby

For many years, I have had to listen to people tell me that when I had a child, all of a sudden I woud come to a new appreciation of gender innateness; that when one sees just how much of a child's personality is inborn, it would become very clear that gender difference is obvious and natural. Although given all the scientific evidence to the contrary, I found this rther dubious, I always had a niggling doubt that perhaps this was true. Or at least that I would anecdotally be swayed.

Now that I actually have a child, I have to say that the people who were so certain of the innateness of a child's personality have some clear evidence on their side. Maiyan certainly slid out into the world good-humored, outgoing, smiling and pleasant. Although Leon and I get the praise for being good parents, it's apparent to us that at most we simply haven't ruined how he already was. Neither one of us feels particularly moved to take credit for the facts of his sunny nature (although we do both wonder from where it came, since neither of us has those personality traits).

For months before my son was born I was a little worried that as a feminist, maybe I wouldn't be such a good parent for a son. After Maiyan was born, though, my worries about that, at least dropped away (I have a whole new set unrelated to gender, but that's another post altogether). I have to say that in some ways, I do think that having a son may even have been better for me; if I had a daugther, I'd always be concerned that I would try to fix my own mistakes through her, or that I'd try to force her to want for herself what I want for myself. Having a son frees me from that.

Over the months watching Maiyan, the way gender figures into the lives of children has become extremely clear. Particularly because he's such a pretty boy, has a gender-neutral name, and because we (his abba abnd I) rarely correct pronouns (Maiyan certainly doesn't care, why should we?) it's interesting to see how the same behavior will be madly differently interpreted by people who know he's a boy versus those who think he's a girl. Some of my favorite interactions when he was very tiny were with a particular person who determinedly interpreted extremely age-appropriate behavior (for both boys and girls) as whaqt they considered "boy-appropriate" (oh look, he wants to throw a ball, or, oh, look, he's interested in cars, when he was almost certainly not, since the likelihood of a three month old having the idea of cars, or even of throwing, seems rather slim). But the best was when someone who knew him would interpret his "boy" behavior, and a few minutes later, someone on the street would praise her delicacy and prettiness, and understand the exact same behavior in terms of its girliness.
Yep, gender in children. Mostly in the adults watching them. It is, however, very clear how gendered behavior gets reinforced. No wonder we can't get rid of the biases.